The 2010 Minnesota Gophers' defense struggled. It finished last in Big Ten in rushing defense, was near the bottom in points allowed and total yards allowed per game in the Big Ten and was dead last in all of FBS football with just eight sacks.
New defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is looking to get away from the read-and-react defense employed by Kevin Cosgrove and implement a more aggressive attacking style of defense. The Gophers will remain in their base 4-3, but rather than having the defensive linemen there to eat up space and allow the linebackers to make plays, the defensive linemen will be asked to get up field and wreak havoc in the backfield.
Because of this, the linebackers and secondary will be asked to play more disciplined, especially at cornerback, where they will play more man-to-man and quarters defense. Should the defensive line fail to put significant pressure on opposing quarterbacks and offensive lines, Claeys will not be afraid dial up blitzes, which will put even more pressure on a young secondary.
One thing going in the Gophers favor this fall will be an experienced defense which losses only three starters from last year in Kyle Theret, Ryan Collado and Jewhan Edwards. The loss of Edwards upfront could be the biggest because he accounted for three of the team-total eight sacks and at times was a defensive stalwart in the middle. The secondary will also feel the effects of the loss of underrated safety Kyle Theret who for much of his career was in charge of getting the secondary players lined up into their proper places.
The defense will benefit from the return of sixth-year safety Kim Royston who missed all of last season due to a broken leg and was granted a medical red-shirt. Royston will be tasked with making sure the secondary players are lined up and in the correct position—like Theret did for much of his career. Royston will bring much needed senior leadership and experience to a secondary that will have a first year starter in Shady Salamon lining up at the other safety position and young cornerbacks lining up opposite Troy Stoudermire.
Stoudermire will be manning the No. 1 cornerback position despite making just a handful of starts at the end of last season. He has proven to be a solid man-coverage corner as well as a strong defender in run support. The 5-foot-10, 195-pounder will be counted on to lock-down opposing wide receivers. Despite only playing the position for less than half of a season, the senior has drawn rave reviews from the coaching staff and fans alike. If he continues to improve the Gophers' could have a potential lock down corner in Stoudermire.
Starting opposite Stoudermire will be sophomore Brock Vereen—who appeared in nine games last season and started four of them. Vereen's season was filled with the ups and downs that were to be expected of a true freshmen thrust into a major role on a Big Ten team. This season the defense will be reliant on his growth and what he learned from last year's experience.
Upfront the Gopher's return three of four starters on the defensive line. Last season defensive end D.L. Wilhite struggled to adjust to the rigors of playing full time and was held at bay by most opposing left tackles. This season Wilhite will be asked to get up-field more which will suit his skill set much better than last year's defensive scheme.
Starting alongside Wilhite will be senior defensive tackles Brandon Kirksey and Anthony Jacobs. Jacobs is making the move from strong side defensive end to defensive tackle. The move shouldn't have much of an impact on his production. At 6-foot-2, 292-pounds, Jacobs is built more like a defensive tackle than defensive end where he has played for most of his career.
Kirksey has been a player that Gopher fans have been waiting to see breakout but haven't quite seen the production they expect from him. As previously mentioned, the new scheme will be very beneficial to the defensive line, especially these two seniors in the middle. Both fit the mold of 3-technique defensive tackles who are more get-up-field-type tackles as opposed to nose tackles that primarily stuff the run.
The linebackers are by far the strongest area on this year's Gopher squad. With the return of Mike Rallis, Keanon Cooper and Gary Tinsley the linebackers will be the heart and soul of the team this year. Tinsley, the lone senior at linebacker, led the team in tackles last season with 90. Tinsley will likely see most of his action this season on running downs and then be subbed out on passing downs.
Rallis is considered the best all-around linebacker on the team. The question for him entering the season will be, can he hold up and stay healthy throughout the entirety of the season? If Rallis can stay healthy he will definitely be an impact player on defense considering he had 37 tackles, six tackles-for-loss and three interceptions in just nine of the Gophers' 12 games—some of those appearances cut short due to injury.
Keanon Cooper is the most athletic and fastest of the linebackers. Even though he's undersized Cooper's greatest asset is his speed and his ability to be utilized against teams that use spread offenses. Last season Cooper tallied 68 tackles, 4 ½ tackles-for-loss, and a forced fumble.