Safeties could be work in progress for UM

This is the ninth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the University of Minnesota football team’s start of practice.

July 22: Quarterbacks
July 23: Running backs
July 24: Wide receivers
July 25: Tight ends
July 26: Offensive linemen
July 27: Defensive linemen
July 28: Linebackers
July 29: Cornerbacks
July 30: Safeties
July 31: Specialists
Aug. 1: Coaches


Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6.5

Projected starters: Brock Vereen (junior), Derrick Wells (sophomore)

Key backups: Cedric Thompson (sophomore), Grayson Levine (sophomore)

The breakdown: The Gophers don’t have a ton of depth at safety and lose plenty of experience from a year ago due to the graduation of Kim Royston, a sixth-year senior who missed time in 2010 but returned in 2011 to lead the defense in tackles with 123. He leaves big shoes to fill at the safety position.

Minnesota will now try to replace Royston and Christyn Lewis, another graduated senior who appeared in all 12 games a year ago, including eight starts. It appears as if Vereen, who makes the transition from cornerback to safety, could be in prime position to secure one of the starting safety jobs. As a sophomore last year, Vereen made 12 starts at cornerback and had 67 tackles, one interception and five pass break-ups. Vereen did not practice this spring, however, due to a knee injury, which may impact his ability to quickly adjust to the new position.

Also making the switch from cornerback to safety is Wells, who played in 11 games as a true freshman last season but did not start. Wells has added weight in the offseason and spring and is now up to around 205 pounds, which should help him transition to the safety position. He certainly appeared to bring a physical style during spring ball and could challenge for a starting spot.

But defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys knows that both Vereen and Wells will be works in progress at safety as they continue to learn the position.

“We’ll be going through the non-conference (with) a few growing pains with them being in situations where it’ll be a shift, motion, something that is new that they haven’t seen,” Claeys said. “They may be a little hesitant, but as far as skill wise, tackling ability, coverage ability, they really have done really well.”

Cedric Thompson and Grayson Levine should see snaps as backup safeties. Thompson played in seven games as a true freshman out of Calipatria, Calif., last season and had 16 tackles. Levine, out of Eden Prairie, Minn., saw the field in five games as a freshman in 2011 and registered three tackles.

“I’m really excited to watch them grow,” Claeys said of the safeties. “I think by the end of the year, we’ll be really solid in the secondary.”

Best position battle: While Vereen will likely be a starter, the other starting job could be up for grabs this fall. Claeys raved about the springs that Thompson and Wells had, and that second spot will likely come down to one of those two sophomores. Both players are listed at 205 pounds, but the 6-foot Wells is two inches taller than the 5-foot-10 Thompson. Minnesota is hoping that both players, regardless of who starts, can help contribute to a defense that ranked dead last in interceptions in 2011 with just four — just one from the safety position.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Ohio State. 2. Nebraska. 3. Michigan State. The Buckeyes’ safety duo of Christian Bryant and C.J. Barnett is likely the top unit in the Big Ten. As a sophomore one year ago, Bryant had 69 tackles and eight pass break-ups — third most in the Big Ten in 2011. Barnett, meanwhile, had 75 tackles, two interceptions and six pass break-ups. Nebraska boasts depth at safety, including seniors P.J. Smith and Daimion Stafford. As a whole, MSU’s safeties are young, but the Spartans bring back junior Isaiah Lewis, who was named second-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore last year, when he had 74 tackles and four interceptions.

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