Gophers defense has to replace top talent but may be deeper in ’14

With Brock Vereen (left) moving on to the NFL, the Gophers will look to Cedric Thompson to step up and be a leader on defense next season.

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MINNEAPOLIS — Between Minnesota’s final regular season-game and its Texas Bowl appearance, safety Cedric Thompson pored over film from each of the team’s 2013 outings.

He highlighted his gaffes — a missed tackle here, a blown coverage there. It’s not easy, raking through one’s own shortcomings, and it took hours of work.

But Thompson didn’t shy away from reviewing his. Then he went out in the bowl game and avoided almost all of them, making 14 total tackles and recovering a fumble in his team’s 21-17 loss.

"Everybody has a bad game; it depends on how you go through practice," Thompson said Thursday after Minnesota’s second spring practice. "I went back through every game to make sure I don’t miss tackles, play receivers better."

Thompson — the Golden Gophers’ top returning tackler — and the rest of the defense are taking that same approach this spring. Rather than make wholesale, overarching changes, they’re more focused on the minute details.

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After all, it was Minnesota’s defense, bookended by tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, that carried the program to its first eight-win season in a decade. Those two are gone and currently preparing for the NFL draft, but several returning players bring big-game experience into the team’s spring practices.

Yet every one of them can point to different days, series or plays when he didn’t do his job. Iowa, for example, ran and passed all over the Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. Michigan downright embarrassed them in the Big House. Indiana gashed them for almost 500 yards in a near disaster for Minnesota.

So harping on certain situations and breakdowns will be a theme all spring.

"That’s what we all go back to doing," coach Jerry Kill said. "We didn’t handle this very well, we didn’t handle this; is it what we were doing? Was it players not executing? Do we need better athletes? You always look at that.

"I think the only way you learn football is situational football."

The losses of Hageman, Vereen and linebacker Aaron Hill sting. But defensive coordinator — and at times last year, acting head coach — Tracy Claeys makes a point of rotating as many able-bodied players as possible.

That gives Minnesota seven 2013 starters coming back and 18 returners that played in at least 10 different games last season. The Gophers also signed linebacker Cody Poock from the junior college ranks, and the Okoboji, Iowa native has a shot at cracking the two-deep this fall.

"(Our belief) has always been to play more kids if they’re capable of being productive," Claeys said.

Said Kill: "I think we’ll be even deeper."

Since his breakout bowl appearance, Thompson has emerged as the defense’s go-to leader. He paced Minnesota with 79 total tackles last season — partially a product of a sometimes-suspect rush defense that ranked 54th nationally and eighth in the 12-team Big Ten. He helms a secondary that should be the Gophers’ most reliable defensive unit next fall, thanks to the return of Thompson and cornerback Eric Murray.

D’Vondre Campbell could become the next Gopher to go high in the NFL draft, especially after adding almost 10 pounds of muscle to his body this offseason. The speedy, hard-hitting junior had 41 total tackles last year and started three games when other linebackers went down with injuries.

He’s worked primarily with Minnesota’s top unit during two spring practices, though Claeys prefers to rotate frequently within the second level of the defense. Damien Wilson also comes back after ranking second on the team with 78 total tackles, 5.5 for loss, last season.

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There will be no replacing Hageman, whom NFL Draft Scout projects as a first- or second-round draft pick. But end Theiren Cockran, interior mauler Cameron Botticelli and company will be the primary cogs in Claeys’ 4-3 system.

The Gophers are fortunate to return their defensive coordinator himself, too. Claeys became a hot head-coaching candidate after overseeing a four-game win streak while Kill took a backseat to deal with his seizure condition.

A couple athletic directors came calling, but Claeys never so much as sat down for an interview with any of them, he said Thursday.

"I love the guys we work with," said Claeys, who was in charge of Division 1’s No. 25 scoring defense last season. "I think our staff’s great. Killer’s great.

"If you don’t have true interest, there’s no sense in interviewing."

Instead, Claeys and his defensive staff spent a good chunk of the winter analyzing film of the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks’ defensive schemes. They’ve also planned a trip to take in some of Auburn’s spring workouts and may visit another national title contender or two, as well.

Minnesota’s first two practices consisted of helmets-only drills and scrimmage situations. But the Gophers will don pads for the first time this spring on Saturday.

They’ll also begin zeroing in on specific in-game scenarios, Kill said — third down, fourth down, red zone, 2-minute drill and the like.

Specifics. Not generalities.

"I feel like this spring is extremely important," Campbell said, "because if we don’t have the depth we need, that can cost us later in the season."

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