U’s Fraley finds a home at strong safety

Aaron Blake

Junior Justin Fraley has caused arguments among coaches during his three-plus years on Minnesota’s football team.

But Fraley is hardly a deviant or a liability for the coaching staff. In fact, he’s quite the opposite.

“There was always an argument between the secondary coach and the linebackers coach,” coach Glen Mason said. “Nobody ever wanted to give him up. My thought was always that if he’s not starting and he can help some other position, let’s go there.”

Fraley bounced from cornerback to linebacker his freshman season, then returned to cornerback before going back to linebacker last year. He finally found a home – he thinks – at strong safety before the Music City Bowl last December.

In Saturday’s 20-14 win at Penn State, Fraley registered five tackles, broke up two passes and had his first career interception, which thwarted a Lions drive and returned momentum to Minnesota’s (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) side late in the game.

It’s not surprising that after such a game, he speaks of strong safety as his home. After all, he played safety in high school and, by most accounts, has the frame for the position at 6 feet tall and 205 pounds.

Still, the versatility Mason sees in Fraley translates well to other positions. Combining a 4.5-second, 40-yard dash with a bench press of 365 pounds leaves coaches with either a fast linebacker or a strong defensive back.

“It really doesn’t matter where I am on the field to me, as long as it’s a contribution to the team,” Fraley said.

The ability to tackle the various positions has translated into 12 starts in his first two seasons. He now shares time with senior Justin Isom at the latest position, making his first start there against Penn State.

Fraley said he learns from Isom, who has more experience at safety. But the 4 inches, 20 pounds and linebacker experience Fraley has over Isom make him a different type of safety.

Senior free safety Eli Ward said Fraley’s time closer to the defensive line has made him a better run-stopper than most safeties.

Overall, Mason calls Fraley the “prototype” of the player coaches look for.

“The really good defenses will take the linebackers and make them defensive ends, and they’ll take the big safeties and make them linebackers,” Mason said. “Justin’s kind of a blend. It’s been a process where we’ve tried to find a place where he’d fit in.”

If Saturday was any indication, Fraley will fit in fine where he’s at. Besides the crucial interception, he likely prevented a touchdown in the first quarter.

With Minnesota up 7-0, Lions starting quarterback Zack Mills threw deep down the left sideline to a streaking Gerald Smith. Fraley got there at the last moment and tipped the ball off course, preventing a Smith jog down the sideline and a tie game.

For his part, Fraley compares interceptions and passes defended to sacks and quarterback hurries for defensive linemen.

“You’re probably not going to get the rush that you get from a sack,” Fraley said. “But it’s just as important. Any play like that on defense is really important.”

Ward said preventing big plays as Fraley did with his fingertips is the goal of the defense this year.

To this point, the Gophers defense has allowed just one play over 30 yards – a 34-yard pass late in the game versus Tulsa with Minnesota in front, 42-0.

Also, Penn State had just two plays over 20 yards including a tricky option reverse pitch to wide receiver Maurice Humphrey for 22 yards.

“When they got deep on us, we did what we had to do to keep them from getting the big play,” Ward said. “We bend a little bit, but if we don’t give up touchdown bombs or long runs, then we believe we have a chance to win every game.”

And with Fraley preventing a big play in the first quarter and making one in the fourth at his new place in the lineup, Minnesota got all the chance it needed.