Say this name with me…. Ra'Shede Hageman. Commit it to memory, because if you weren't paying attention to him after 2012 you sure will be by the time Big Ten play roles around in 2013. He didn't rank just outside our top ten in our Preseason Top 25 Players list for nothing.
However, as we head into the 2013 season one has to also be careful to realize that some of the help he had in that breakout season is gone and that means transition and question marks for a defense that was vastly underrated and sometimes unfairly dumped upon last season.
As a whole never ranked below 8th in the Big Ten in any major defensive category last season, a marked improvement for a team that was consistently getting hammered in both the run and pass games before Kill arrived. So, do those numbers hold up or will there be a backslide with the departures heading into 2013?
After taking a look back at what 2012 was all about yesterday in our start of #MinnesotaWeek, let us explore the 2013 Minnesota Gophers defense as we move forward to this season….
We've already highlighted Ra'Shede Hageman and the defensive tackle has a good chance, regardless of what happens around him, to be a great pro prospect and to those of us in the college football world – an All-Big Ten type player. He had 35 total tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss and 6 sacks last season – damn good numbers for any defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme to say the least. However, outside of him there isn't much in the way of a pass rushing threat back on the defensive line. Lining up next to Hageman is Cameron Bottcielli, who had 21 tackles of his own and is an athletic 290-pounder.
On the outside is where the questions really abound with D.L. Wilhite gone. Looking to replace his pass rushing production will be a pair of disappointing juniors in Michael Amaefula and Ben Perry. Disappointing, only because both of these guys have tremendous speed potential, but it hasn't translated into production in terms of pass rush at all. Amaefula is going to start as he did last season, but he needs to be much more of a terror in opposing backfields. Opposite of Amaefula should be sophomore Theiren Cockran, who is a smaller end with a ton of potential – potential he showed last season while recording 6 tackles and a sack during limited reps as part of the rotation last year.
Overall this front four has a lot of potential, but a lot to prove as well. It needs to show that despite the smallish nature of its ends it can stand up against power running games that will be coming at them on a consistent basis all season long.
This has been the unit that gave Gopher fans headaches last year and for the past few really and strangely it had nothing to do with their ability to make tackles. With two-thirds of this unit gone from last season it'll be up to Aaron Hill, 3rd on the team last year in tackles, to lead a younger group this time around. He's a nice piece to have on either side of the linebacking unit – versatility is his biggest quality.
However, the other two spots were a worry for this coaching staff, so much so that they dipped twice into the JUCO pool, pulling out some good talent in MLB Damien Wilson (6'2", 254lbs.) and De'Vondre Campbell (just a sophomore coming in) on the outside.
The spot to watch is the starter opposite of Hill. That's because Campbell will have to earn his spot and senior James Manuel, a man of 50 tackles last season alone, won't give it up fast. However, anyone that knows Kill coached teams knows that he values speed on the outside more than anything else and Campbell has that in spades. As we head into fall camp watching the group will be hugely important.
No one in Gopherland had to worry about the secondary much last season, after all they ranked 4th in passing defense and passing defense efficiency in the Big Ten. Not bad for a much maligned defense, right? However, the story in 2013 is much different. Gone is do everything DB and returner Troy Stoudermire along with another corner. That means a lot of transition for this group.
Thankfully, they have some nice pieces back in names like Derrick Wells, who will be making the move to corner from safety, and Brock Vereen back who could wind up playing either corner or safety (my money is on safety for this big hitter). Wells is a potential star in the making as his 74 tackle, 2INT, and 10 passes broken up performance from last year would suggest. His size is great against a Big Ten wide receiver group that's only getting bigger and bigger.
A name that intrigues me and could force Vereen to the safety spot is Matt Shabazz, who played well in a limited role behind Stoudermire last season. Look for him to be another lockdown option at the corner spot in his final season in Minneapolis.
No matter who it is between Wells and Vereen that ends up in the safety spot they'll team up with Cedric Thompson, who could be the new leader (in terms of vocally and in the locker room) of this defense moving forward. He had 43 tackles and 2INT's last season and could be poised for more with his strong ability to read and react to routes and the QB.
In the rotation I would expect to see names like Damarius Travis (safety) and Briean Boddy making some of an impact as well – both have good experience, but also need to show they can be that nickel type guy. Expect Boddy to win that role before the season gets underway.
Questions still to be answered in fall camp:
– Where will Wells and Vereen fit in in the backfield?
– Can anyone outside Ra'Shede Hageman give this team a consistent pass rush?
– Will this unit be enough to win this team a game or two as the offense figures it out to start the season?