Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner dropped back in a drill on the first day of fall practice last week and threw an out route to his right, only to have it intercepted and returned for a touchdown by cornerback Derrick Wells.
Next up in the drill was quarterback Philip Nelson. He threw almost the exact same ball. His attempt was swatted to the ground by another Gophers defensive back.
After practice, Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover didn’t express concern for his quarterbacks. Instead, he seemed in awe of the defense.
“Those guys are flying around,” he said. “I’m standing back there watching, going, ‘He’s got it open,’ and all of a sudden [the secondary is] gobbling it up.”
Minnesota’s offense lacks the firepower of most other Big Ten teams, so succeeding in the conference will likely require a herculean defensive performance.
Last season, the Gophers passing defense finished 12th in the nation, thanks in large part to the play of its secondary, and despite the loss of graduating starting cornerbacks Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, coaches and players agree the unit is better entering 2013.
“This is the best secondary that we’ve had since we’ve been here,” said third-year Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
One reason for the perceived improvement is the Gophers’ depth at defensive back.
The coaching staff moved Wells to corner this offseason. He started 11 games at safety as a sophomore last year and finished second on the team in solo tackles (46) and pass break-ups (10).
Junior Cedric Thompson and senior Brock Vereen are the likely starters at safety. Vereen started the final six games of the season last year and considers himself a leader of the secondary.
Wells is probably a lock to start at one of the cornerback spots, leaving on the opposite side a four-way battle among seniors Martez Shabazz and Jeremy Baltazar, junior Briean Boddy and sophomore Eric Murray.
Shabazz and Baltazar both saw action in reserve roles last season.
Regardless of who starts, the athleticism of the secondary will be superior to the Gophers’ other units this season.
“The secondary fits where we need to be in the Big Ten athletically,” said Gophers head coach Jerry Kill. “There’s some [other] positions that we’ve got to get caught up to that.”
Kill said Murray stood out in the spring when he received more reps as a result of injuries to Baltazar and Shabazz. Murray also caught the attention of Vereen.
“By the end of the season, everybody will know the name Eric Murray,” Vereen said in July at Big Ten Media Days.
Kill emphasized the need for depth at defensive back because the Gophers will play Northwestern and Indiana this year. Both teams feature spread offenses, which could force the Gophers to play their third and fourth cornerbacks more than usual.
The entire Gophers defense forced 20 turnovers last season, including 13 interceptions. Northwestern led the Big Ten with 29 forced turnovers.
Murray said the secondary is looking to force 20 turnovers as a unit this year. He said the defense can focus on creating turnovers because it’s more comfortable this year.
“Everybody knows where they’re supposed to be,” Murray said. “When you know where you’re supposed to be, tipped balls might come right to you.”
The secondary forced turnovers throughout the first weekend of practice, flying to the ball and disrupting the offense. Thompson intercepted two passes during the second practice.
“This is probably as good a secondary as we’ll face throughout the year,” Limegrover said.
The defensive backs serve as a tough early test for the Gophers’ young quarterbacks.
“Our defense does so many different things,” said Nelson, a sophomore. “We see the wildest looks, and that’s going to help us out come game time.”
Another factor that could help the secondary is an improved pass rush. Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman has high expectations and leads a group of defensive linemen that the coaches have praised heading into 2013.
“Your best friend in the secondary is a solid defensive line,” Vereen said at Media Days. “Ra’Shede is the anchor of that solid defensive line. We’re going to rely a lot on him, and I know he’s up for the challenge.”
Vereen said the Gophers’ goal in 2013 is to win a Big Ten championship.
While a championship of any sort will be difficult to attain, the presence of a solid secondary has created optimism entering the season.
“When you play defensive back real good, you’ve got a chance to have a good defense,” Murray said. “Because when it’s hard to pass, it’s really hard to do anything.”