Minnesota could be a Big Ten title contender this season. Seriously. Their offense should be one of the best in the nation and the team benefits from a very favorable schedule, but in order to have a real shot, the defense has to improve. The Gophers were stingy against the pass, but gave up too much on the ground, including 28 touchdowns.
Key 2002 Stats: NCAA rank in ( )
Scoring defense: 24.5 (47)
Rushing yards allowed: 176.8 (90)
Yards per carry: 4.30
Passing yards allowed: 178.62 (19)
Yards per pass: 6.33
Total defense, yards allowed: 355.38 (48)
Yards per play: 5.13
Turnovers forced: 21—14 fumbles recovered, 7 INT
Sacks: 31 for 167 yards
Defensive Line Analysis:
All four starters and most of the team's top reserves return. The defensive line led a good pass rush that tallied 31 sacks a year ago. In 2001, the Gophers had 14 sacks. A similar improvement this season is, of course, unlikely, but with another year of experience, a still fairly young group should be much improved.
Senior Dan Kwapinski and junior Darrell Reid will likely again start at defensive tackle, with 315-pound sophomore Anthony Montgomery adding some bulk in the middle. Kwapinski had started 23 straight games before a torn ACL kept him out of the Music City Bowl. Kwapinski, who played as a reserve two years ago, has 53 career tackles in 32 games, including four tackles for loss and two sacks.
Reid led the Gophers defensive line with 43 tackles and tied for the team lead with 8 TFL in his sophomore season. In 23 career starts, he has 71-9-3.
Montgomery is the x-factor. A three-sport star in high school who played quarterback, defensive end, tight end, defensive back and linebacker on the football field, Montgomery is a big player who flashes athleticism and could develop into a difference maker inside. He appeared in nine games last season and had 14-2-0.
The Gophers will need to replace the production of top reserve Charlton Keith, who led the team with seven sacks last season. Minnesota's starting defensive ends, however, each had six sacks in 2002. Fifth-year senior Paul Nixon converted to end from defensive back and linebacker last year and played well, despite weighing in at 225 pounds. Nixon had three of his six sacks against Ohio State and tied for the team lead with 8 TFL. With a year of experience at the position under his belt, and another 20 pounds on his frame, Nixon should be an asset off the edge.
Mark Losli started the final 10 games last season as a redshirt freshman, taking over the starting role from Keith. Losli had 37-7-6 in his first season.
Senior stalwart Ben West headlines the Gophers linebacking corps. West started all 13 games last season, finishing with 103 tackles, the second most on the team. He also had seven tackles for loss, three pass break ups and an impressive five forced fumbles.
Though West had just one career start before last season, he quickly became known as one of the best linebackers in the Big Ten. He has to be a leader and the physical presence on an undersized linebacking corps.
Likely flanking West are "Will" ‘backer Dominique Sims, a converted safety, and drop linebacker Kyle McKenzie. Sims, a junior, recorded just six tackles last season, but was impressive enough in spring work to lead the position heading into the fall.
Sophomore McKenzie started two games last season and is expected to be the starter at the drop position this season. He tallied 17 tackles last season, including 10, in one of his two starts, versus Wisconsin.
Smith, a junior-college transfer, recorded 120 tackles last season at El Camino Junior College.
Three starters return along a secondary that contributed heavily to a solid pass defense in 2002. The unit was reasonably productive, but did not make enough big plays, especially down the stretch. The team did force 21 turnovers last season, but the Gophers came up with only one interception in Big Ten games. The secondary has to come up with more this season to help Minnesota move up in the standings.
The top player in the secondary is free safety Eli Ward, an underrated performer. Ward led the team last season with 116 tackles. He also contributed six TFL, two interceptions and seven PBU. Ward has started 20 games in his career.
Fifth-year senior Justin Isom started last season at strong safety but this year will take on one of the cornerback's duties. Isom led the team with three interceptions and was tied for the team lead with 8 PBU. He also had 68 tackles, four for loss.
Moving into Isom's strong safety spot is converted linebacker Justin Fraley. He started six games at the Will position last year and recorded 42 tackles.
This is a middle of the road defense but that may be more than enough for Minnesota to win a lot of games this season. Though the Gophers are likely not going to shut many teams down, this unit should be improved upon a year ago and may surprise people. Ben West and Eli Ward are first-team all-conference-caliber players and the defensive line could be among the better groups in the Big Ten. If Anthony Montgomery develops into a difference-maker on the line, and if one of the linebackers can step up to shine alongside West and if the changes to the secondary go over well, than the Gophers defense will be more than good enough for Minnesota to win 10 or 11 games this season.