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MnB B1G Preview 2013: Examining the Minnesota defense

While the Gophers' offense struggled to gain its footing in 2012, the defense showed some flashes of promise and finished around the middle of the Big Ten. Will the defense once again be able to lead the way in 2013?

Scott Halleran

The Stats

Rushing Defense - 172 ypg (72nd nationally, 8th conference)
Pass Eff. Defense - 113.46 (23rd, 4th)
Total Defense - 359 ypg (33rd, 5th)

Scoring Defense - 24.7 ppg (45th, 8th

The Team

Minnesota's defense wasn't great in 2012 -- it allowed over 30 points in five games -- but given the shelling that some lesser Big Ten units took, that isn't all bad. When it came to games where the Gophers should have taken care of business, it largely happened. All four non-conference opponents (not a tough slate) were held to respectable point totals, with UNLV the highest scoring at 27 points but needing three overtimes to get there. In the Big Ten season, the one game that sticks out is Iowa, but outside of a rough seven minute stretch in that one where the Hawkeyes scored 21 of their 31 points, Minnesota largely held serve.

This defense was largely good enough to take care of business against bad or struggling offenses. Michigan started slow as Devin Gardner adjusted to life under center, and Michigan State managed a very Michigan State scoring breakdown: two touchdowns and four field goals.

So there were some positive takeaways for the Gopher defense. The pass defense numbers were stellar, but in the Big Ten in 2012, you had to be pretty terrible against the pass to have it show up in the national numbers (Big Ten QBs FTW).

The biggest area of concern for Minnesota was rush defense, and it will continue to be worrisome going into 2013. Only New Hampshire failed to crack 100 yards on the ground against the Gophers, and both Michigan State and Wisconsin went over 300 in the game.

If that is to improve it will have to start up front. Luckily, Minnesota gets one of its best defensive players back, in the form of Ra'Shede Hageman, the massive 6'6 310 lbs defensive tackle that is one of the most physically gifted defensive linemen in the conference. He had six sacks and 7.5 TFLs a year ago, and will no doubt be Minnesota's best defensive player this year. Next to him will most likely be Cameron Botticelli, who started all 13 games a year ago. Pushing him will be young tackles Scott Epke and Yoshoub Timms, both second year players. Roland Johnson will also be back after an ACL tear sidelined him late last year.

On the outside of the line, Minnesota loses DL Wilhite, last year's team leader in sacks and TFLs. However, Michael Amaefula will be back for his junior season after starting all 13 games a year ago opposite Wilhite. Minnesota also returns Theiren Cockran, a RS-So. that was in the two deep a year ago.

The potential is there for the defensive line to take another step forward if one or more players can fill DL Wilhite's shoes and the rest of the two deep develops.

Of course, linebacker is going to have to improve for Minnesota. What is the number one sign of a bad run defense? A Secondary player led the team in tackles last year. That will have to change this year.

Outside LB Aaron Hill is back after starting 11 games a year ago. He was a productive player all over the field, but relatively limited. The Daily Gopher on Hill:

Aaron Hill: a guy who worked himself into a starting caliber LB over the last two years and fairly good in pass coverage but lacking the ideal athletic characteristics (not to mention run read instincts) that you'd want out of an OLB. He's the most consistent out of the bunch on the outside, though that doesn't say much.

Opposite him Minnesota will have to replace departed senior Mike Rallis, and that will be with either Lamonte Edwards or James Manuel. Both players are in their fourth year in the program, but neither has much size (Manuel is the biggest of the two at 225). They both also got one start a year ago and played a lot of the bench. If neither can impress enough to win the job, it may just go to De'Vondre Campbell, a JUCO transfer out of Kansas. He isn't much bigger -- just 225 lbs. himself -- but is taller (6'5 compared to 6'2 for Edwards and Manuel).

The middle will also be held down by a new starter as either RS-Fr. Jack Lynn or JUCO transfer Damien Wilson -- both split time at the position in the off season -- will win the job. The Daily Gopher is high on both, as they showed good instincts and block shedding abilities.

One comforting thing for Minnesota is that the secondary will return a few experienced players. Both safeties Brock Vereen and Cedric Thompson are back. Vereen worked his way into the starting lineup a year ago, while Thompson was a starter in all 13 games. Neither has the size you would hope for from the safety spot (Vereen is the biggest at 6' 202 lbs), but experience makes up for that.

Derrick Wells, a safety a year ago, looks to have moved over to one of the CB spots this season. He should be solid, leaving the lone question mark in the secondary who fills the other CB spot. That could be sophomore Eric Murray, who played all 13 games last year and got a lot of time in the spring. He will be pushed by JUCO transfer Briean Boddy and senior Martez Shabazz.

Overall, Minnesota brings back a solid amount of starters and role players, and the defensive level shouldn't fall off much from what was a pretty average unit a year ago. The biggest concern is what happens at linebacker. If the two new starters at LB can acclimate to the position quickly and lock down the middle, this run defense could take another step forward from last year.

Ultimately, run defense is going to be what sinks this unit, if anything. While Minnesota doesn't have the personnel to be a top-25 defense, it does have the potential to be a solid, balanced unit. That will have to come from a bigger commitment to stopping the run on defense.