Gophers secondary has growing pains
By Dave Campbell
MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s defensive backs were one of the major questions about this year’s team. The answer through the Gophers’ first two games has not been good.
This inexperienced group has already given up 830 yards passing. Only San Diego State and Southern Methodist have surrendered a higher average of yards through the air among the 119 schools currently participating in the NCAA’s first division.
It would be another matter if Minnesota had been playing, say, Purdue, but this was Bowling Green and Miami of Ohio who were carving up the Gophers secondary. The Mid-American Conference has some capable offenses, yes, but it’s just not the same as the Big Ten.
"We’re tired of hearing we’re not that good on defense, we can’t do this, we can’t do that," cornerback Jamal Harris said, adding: "I think we just need to go out and just make it happen: Knocking down passes, picking off balls that should be picked off, making tackles when we need to make tackles.
"When we do that, I think that’ll make everybody look at it like, ‘OK, they’re not as bad as we think they are,’ because we never thought that this is a bad secondary at all."
The statistics don’t support that, however. Minnesota has ranked near the bottom of the conference for years in defense, and the dismissal of cornerback Dominic Jones from the team this summer following a rape charge further depleted a thin secondary.
Harris, who had two interceptions last week against Miami, is the senior leader. Starting strong safety Dominique Barber is also a senior, but this week’s entrance of free safety Curtis Thomas into the lineup gives the Gophers two true freshmen starters — along with cornerback Ryan Collado. Kyle Theret, Barber’s backup, is also a true freshman.
"We’ve heard a lot about it coming in, how it’s been a weakness," Collado said. "We’re really working hard to make it one of our team strengths."
Better pressure from the front would certainly help. Though there have been repeated breakdowns in coverage and multiple missed tackles from the secondary, the defensive line has totaled only one sack — by Eric Small — in 107 passing attempts by the opponents.
Minnesota has faced plenty of multiple-receiver sets, forcing defensive coordinator Everett Withers to call for three-man fronts more often than not. That doesn’t make it easy to grab the quarterback, so the Gophers are planning to reduce their use of that formation to help the defensive backs out in this Saturday’s game at Florida Atlantic.
This will be a special game for Harris, who is from Delray Beach, just a few miles up the interstate from FAU in the greater Miami metropolitan area.
He has so far been the only one in the secondary who has made any significant plays, with his two interceptions and one forced fumble, though Duran Cooley leads the team with 18 tackles and also has three pass breakups. Thomas replaced Cooley in the starting lineup.
Harris was named the most valuable defensive player in the Miami game.
"We need his leadership in a big way," Brewster said.
It’s impossible to upgrade the talent pool at a particular position overnight, but by playing so many rookies now the Gophers are getting a head start on future improvement in the secondary.
The coach has made it clear he wants to use his best players, even if they are freshmen.
"It’s exciting," Brewster said, pausing briefly. "It makes your heart beat a little bit faster, too."