D-backs talented,

Murali Balaji

One of the keys to the Gophers’ success this season will rest upon the effectiveness of their defensive backs. The first real test of the secondary will come Saturday against Purdue and its high-profile passing game. The following is an inside look at how each of the key members of the defensive backfield grade out.

Tyrone Carter
Junior strong safety
(5-foot-9, 194 pounds)
Carter is the mainstay of the Gophers’ secondary, and has become one of the most visible players on the team after receiving all-Big Ten honors last season. This year, he has continued his strong play, as he leads the team in tackles (41) and tackles-for-loss (5), and is tied for the team lead in sacks (2). Carter is asked to help in run support, a role which he fills about as well as any strong safety in the country. When the Gophers stack the run, he hovers a few yards away from the line of scrimmage, playing more like a strongside linebacker than a defensive back. Carter is also underrated in pass coverage, but like the other defensive backs, has had problems against bigger receivers. In nickel situations, Carter will line up against the slot receiver, giving him an opportunity to stay closer to the front seven in case of a run. Carter’s contributions to the special teams cannot be overlooked, either. He is second in the Big Ten in kickoff returns (33.6 avg), including an 86-yard return for a touchdown against Arkansas State.

Craig Scruggs
Senior cornerback
(5-foot-9, 175 pounds)
Scruggs is the most experienced corner on the team and the best cover man on the unit. Scruggs is not a ballhawk, as indicated by his two career interceptions. However, he is an able defender against the pass and leads the team in pass breakups (4). What has helped Scruggs is his scrappy style, his willingness to throw his body into the thick of the action. However, his lack of size often encourages opposing quarterbacks to test him. Thus far, Scruggs has not folded, but with games against 6-foot-1 Randall Lane (Purdue), 6-foot-1 Chafie Fields (Penn State) and 6-foot-3 David Boston (Ohio State) coming up, now is not the time to claim victory. What works to Scruggs’ advantage is that he is a sure tackler and he plays angles well. Teams will still try to use fade and post patterns to exploit his lack of height, but Scruggs is a proven starter who doesn’t give up too many big plays.

Keith Dimmy
Senior free safety
(6-foot-1, 175 pounds).
This is Dimmy’s first year as starting free safety, and so far the results have been mixed. He currently is tied for third on the team in tackles (17), but has not stood out in any specific defensive category. While he has played the role of centerfielder adequately, Dimmy still has had occasional lapses in pass coverage. Whether due to misreads or just adjusting to full-time starting duties, Dimmy must get over his learning curve by the time the Gophers meet Purdue on Saturday. His pass coverage skills will be especially important, since he will be counted on to help the corners defend against bigger receivers. Dimmy is not flashy, but he does an adequate job playing the deep middle. In zone packages, he usually lines up deeper than the other defensive backs in an effort to defend against the possible deep ball. While Dimmy does not have the visibility of Carter nor the heavy expectations that the corners have, his performance will go a long way in determining the effectiveness of the secondary.

Trevis Graham
Sophomore cornerback
5-foot-10, 180 pounds
Graham was pushed into the starting role when Jimmy Wyrick broke his ankle. With Wyrick probably out for the remainder of the season, Graham will be counted on to learn on the job and take on the role of being a man-to-man cover guy. Graham is in the precarious position of being the possible weak link in the secondary. The big test will be to see how he can defend against the big and fast receivers of the Boilermakers. Unlike Scruggs, Graham has still not mastered the ability to play bigger than he is, which increases the likelihood that he will be picked on by opposing teams. What works to Graham’s advantage is that he will only get better as the season progresses, but he must take his lumps and be prepared for long afternoons and many passes thrown his way.

Willie Middlebrooks
Freshman cornerback
6-foot-2, 197 pounds
Middlebrooks converted from free safety prior to the season, and it looks as if he has promise playing on the wing. He has racked up 14 tackles in a nickel back role and picked off his first career pass against Houston. However, Middlebrooks has been beaten deep a couple of times this season, and it looks as if his development into an every-down corner will take some time. Like most bigger defensive backs, Middlebrooks doesn’t seem to have the natural flexibility or fluidity of a smaller player, but he will become less rigid as the season progresses. He has the size and speed to grapple with the Big Ten’s best receivers, but without the polish and experience, he is not ready to face the likes of Boston, Tai Streets (Michigan) and Tyrone Browning (Indiana). Look for Middlebrooks to play more in bump-and-run packages this season.
Others in the mix: Fred Rodgers, junior cornerback (5-foot-9, 175 pounds); Delvin Jones, freshman safety (6-foot, 189 pounds).

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of weekly analyses of various Gophers positions. Next week, a look at Minnesota’s corps of running backs.