Two experienced safeties lead way for Gophers
This is the ninth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team's Aug. 1 start of practice.
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starters: Brock Vereen (senior), Cedric Thompson (junior)
Key backups: Damarius Travis (sophomore), Antonio Johnson (sophomore), Grayson Levine (junior)
The breakdown: Minnesota's secondary was a strong point last year, and the safety position was a big reason why. However, the Gophers are moving playmaker Derrick Wells from safety to cornerback for 2013, although head coach Jerry Kill said Wells may still play some at safety.
Regardless, the Gophers do have two safeties with plenty of experience in Vereen and Thompson. Vereen has a chance to be one of the leaders of Minnesota's defense. After starting seven games at safety last year, Vereen was named preseason All-Big Ten third team by Athlon prior to the 2013 season. He had 64 tackles and nine pass breakups along with two interceptions during his junior year -- his first year at safety.
Vereen has football in his bloodlines. His older brother, Shane, is a running back for the New England Patriots. Their father, Henry, played college football at UNLV. If Vereen's senior season goes well, he may have a chance to follow his brother to the NFL.
Thompson appeared in all 13 games last and started eight games at safety. As a sophomore, Thompson had two interceptions and had a career-high seven tackles in the Gophers' bowl game against Texas Tech.
Best position battle: Aside from Vereen and Thompson, the Gophers' safeties don't have a ton of experience. The biggest position battle will be for which backups get the most playing time in 2013.
It appears as if a pair of sophomores -- Johnson and Travis -- will be backing up Vereen and Thompson. As a true freshman last year, Johnson played in 12 games and earned a start against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. That bowl game was easily Johnson's best performance of the year as he made a season-high six tackles while also registering his lone pass breakup of the year.
At 6-foot-2, 208 pounds, Travis possesses more size than the other safeties. He saw playing time in all 13 of the Gophers' games last year, including the bowl game.
Levine should also be in the mix at safety in 2013. The junior played in seven games as a sophomore last year but registered just two tackles all year.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Isaiah Lewis (Michigan State) 2. C.J. Barnett (Ohio State) 3. Christian Bryant (Ohio State)
Lewis leads a Michigan State defense that was one of the best in the Big Ten last year against the pass. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound senior earned honorable mention All-Big Ten honors last year as a junior and had an interception in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl against TCU. Lewis definitely has a shot at playing at the next level and leads this year's class of Big Ten safeties.
Ohio State has two players make the list of top three safeties, as Barnett and Bryan make up one of the best safety duos in the country. Both seniors return plenty of experience as they've combined to play in 63 games during their Buckeyes careers. Barnett had 56 tackles and a pair of interceptions last year, while Bryant made 70 tackles, defended 12 passes and forced two fumbles in 2012.
Defensive backs coach Jay Sawvel says: "I think we've got true depth, or at least have the ability to have true depth for the first time since we've been here. Coming out of the spring, I felt like we could put any one of 10 different people on the field in the secondary and that we could function well. When you have depth like that, it gives you versatility to play the different kinds of people that you've got to play, to play different packages, to do different things. We didn't have that type of full versatility last year."