Gophers shuffle secondary to find cornerback solution
This is the eighth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team's Aug. 1 start of practice.
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6
Projected starters: Derrick Wells (junior), Briean Boddy (junior)
Key backups: Martez Shabazz (senior), Jeremy Baltazar (senior), Marcus Jones (junior), Eric Murray (sophomore)
The breakdown: Of all the holes to fill in 2013, perhaps the biggest is at cornerback. The Gophers lose both starting cornerbacks from 2012 in Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter. Stoudermire was Minnesota's leading tackler last year with 82 total tackles, while Carter led the defense with four interceptions -- including one for a touchdown.
To try and fill the void, the Gophers have moved a few players around from different positions with the hopes of patching things in the secondary. Wells moves from safety -- where he had 74 tackles and two interceptions a year ago -- back to cornerback. At six feet, 206 pounds, Wells provides a physical presence at cornerback. Minnesota moved wide receiver Marcus Jones from wide receiver to corner. Like Wells, Steven Montgomery also transitioned from safety to cornerback.
Boddy played in all 13 of the Gophers' games last year as a reserve. He had his best game in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas, registering four tackles. The 2012 season marked his first with Minnesota after he transferred from Coffeyville Community College.
Baltazar is another junior college transfer, playing last year for the Gophers after spending time at Blinn Community College. He made one start in 2012 against Northwestern and appeared in all 13 games. The 6-foot, 197-pound Baltazar will challenge for a starting spot during fall camp.
Murray finished the year with just five tackles as he played primarily on special teams, but the sophomore from Milwaukee took reps with the first-team defense during spring practices and could do possibly the same this fall.
Minnesota ranked sixth in the Big Ten with 13 interceptions last year. Jerry Kill's team was also one of the better conference teams against the pass, holding opponents to just 186.6 passing yards per game. In order to have a similar defensive output in 2013, the Gophers will need some of their inexperienced cornerbacks to step up and mature quickly.
Best position battle: The competition for the second starting cornerback spot opposite Wells may be the Gophers' best position battle of fall camp. With Stoudermire and Carter serving as fixtures at corner last year, the reserves did not get a ton of experience in 2012. Still, a handful of players who did see time last season could challenge for that starting spot alongside Wells.
It appears as if a handful of players will be battling for that starting job this fall, including Baltazar, Boddy and Shabazz. None have much starting experience, so whoever does win that job will be learning a bit on the fly early in the season. Entering fall camp, it doesn't necessarily appear as if any of the challenges for that second starting spot have a leg up on the rest of the competition.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Bradley Roby (Ohio State) 2. Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State) 3. Ciante Evans (Nebraska)
Roby is not only the best cornerback in the Big Ten, but he might be the best cornerback in all of college football. Many have the Ohio State junior pegged as a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. He led the Big Ten with 19 total passes defended in 2012, including 17 pass break-ups and two interceptions. However, the big question is whether he'll actually play for the Buckeyes this year. The talented cornerback could be suspended by coach Urban Meyer after Roby was arrested earlier this month and charged with misdemeanor battery when he allegedly hit a bouncer at a bar in Bloomington, Ind.
If Roby is clearly the conference's most talented cornerback, Dennard is easily No. 2 on the list. As a junior, the 5-foot-11, 188-pound Dennard earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after making 52 tackles and three interceptions. He's likely a top-10 cornerback in all of college football.
Like the two ahead of him on this list, Evans earned plenty of honors for a strong 2012 season as he was named first-team All-Big Ten as a junior. The 5-foot-11, 190-pound Evans had eight pass breakups and 56 tackles last year.
Head coach Jerry Kill on Derrick Wells: "Derrick's a big corner, which you like in the Big Ten. You like that big, physical presence. And I think he's capable of doing both, and certainly in nickel situations, and so I think you'll see him at safety and corner. … I think Derrick's got the flexibility to do both, which would be a good thing."
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