Statistically speaking the Gopher defense was middle of the road in 2009, ranking fifth in both pass and rush defense. While these stats are important it is also important to take into account both who will be lining up on defense as well as some of the context to those statistics. Gone are three of the Gophers' top five tacklers, linebackers Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett and Simoni Lawrence, who accounted for one third of the Gophers' take downs. To compound matters the other two, returning safeties Kyle Theret and Kim Royston, have looming question marks. Theret had a run-in with the law last spring, charged with fourth degree DWI and is suspended indefinitely, and Royston broke his leg in spring practice, though has been recovering well.
The Gophers will have to rely on three new starters at linebacker in 2010 to account for the loss of Campbell, Triplett and Lawrence. There will be experience at linebacker, the question is whether or not that experience will translate to an efficient unit. Likely starters, Keenon Cooper and Gary Tinsley played in all thirteen games and Mike Rallis played in three games before breaking his leg. All three showed promise last season. Tinsley had 10 tackles, 1.5 for loss and a sack against Iowa. Cooper had 10 tackles, 1.5 for loss an interception against Purdue. While Mike Rallis was playing safety last season, he has bulked up for 2010 and was one of the most active defensive players in the 2010 Gopher spring game.
The question remains as to whether they can do it on a game-in, game-out basis. The 2010 linebackers will also be relying on a new duo of defensive tackles filling holes and getting into the backfield up front. If the linebackers can count on the combo of Jewhan Edwards and Brandon Kirksey blowing up the offensive line, they will find their jobs around the line of scrimmage much easier. Edwards and Kirksey can get into the backfield, but can they make up for the 8.5 tackles for loss and 5 sacks vacated by the outgoing tackles?
While the Gopher should have some stability in the secondary (assuming the return of Royston and Theret) both starting cornerbacks, Traye Simmons and Marcus Sherels, are gone. The two defensive backs will be hard to replace, but as important as finding two defenders to step in for the corners will be for the defensive line to find a pass rush. The 2009 Gophers had a measly 20 sacks (putting them in a tie for second to last in the Big Ten) and only hurried the quarterback 5 times (compared to 30 for the Badgers). If the Gophers can improve on their pass rush, there will be less pressure on the cornerbacks being left on an island for too long.
Finally, and most importantly, will be the performance of the Gopher offense. If the Gopher Offense can string together lengthy, time consuming drives then the Gopher defense will have more time on the sideline for rest and reloading. This might mean a smaller number of tackles put up, but when the Gophers are losing the time of possession battle and only converting on 34% of third downs the Gopher defense will not be called on to rack up almost 1000 tackles in 2010. When one considers the fact that the 2009 Gophers allowed the most sacks in the Big Ten at 41--with Northwestern at number 10 in sacks allowed at 32, and yielded 255 yards on those sacks compared to the Big Ten average of 165 yards, one starts to realize the importance of offensive play on defensive performance.
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