Defense rests hopes on speed and enthusiasm for success

by Brian Hall

Speed and enthusiasm are attempting to replace experience and production on the Minnesota defense this year.

The Gophers must fill holes left by the departure of two first and second-team All-Big Ten selections.

Only two starters return from last year, with junior cornerback Mike Lehan the only one returning at the same position.

With the season opener against Toledo three weeks away, the Minnesota coaching staff believes the replacements will get the job done.

“The defense was one of my major concerns in the spring,” coach Glen Mason said at Wednesday’s football media day. “But I felt much better after spring practice than I did before.

“You worry sometimes about the lack of experience but I like what I see. I am excited about this defense.”

Players aren’t the only unknown commodity. New defensive coordinator Moe Ankney replaces the departed David Gibbs, one of four new defensive coaches. The quartet will attempt to rebuild a unit which regressed last season.

During the 1999 season the Gophers allowed 16.3 points per game, good for eighth in the nation. Last year that number jumped to 26.5, good only for eighth in the Big Ten.

Total yards per game allowed also rose dramatically from 319.9 to 369.2.

The biggest concern for Minnesota is the pass defense which led the Big Ten in 1999 but fell to fourth a year ago.

“Our focus as always will be stopping the run,” Mason said. “But we also need to get better pressure on the quarterback. We have to play better zone and improve our overall pass coverage.”

A lack of experience in the defensive backfield means Jack Brewer – who started last year at wide receiver – moves back to safety. As a part-time safety in 1999, Brewer had 35 tackles and two interceptions.

“Brewer has really stepped up and become one of the leaders of the defense,” Ankney said. “(Senior linebacker) Jimmy Henry has really stepped up and made himself a leader of the defense. Going into fall practice, those two guys have been the ones that stood out, both with leadership and their play, leading by example.”

Also on the move is linebacker Astein Osei to end, end Greg White to linebacker, and defensive lineman Matt Anderle to offense tackle.

The new-look defense will be a key factor in determining Minnesota’s success this year. The schedule includes Northwestern and Wisconsin, who each scored over 40 points against the Gophers last year.

“If we are fast, which I hope we are, it will be a big plus,” Ankney said. “Because there a lot of teams we play this year which are going to play the wide open, spread, no-huddle type of offense.

“I think speed, endurance, and conditioning are big factors when you play that type of offense.”

It’s also a factor when inexperience runs rampant on defense.


Brian Hall welcomes comments at [email protected]