Sacks, turnovers key for Gophers’ defense

Minnesota will have three new starters on its defensive line this season.

Chris Lempesis

Over the past few seasons, Minnesota’s football team has developed some distinct tendencies.

The offense, for example, has been known to rely heavily on the running game to move the ball downfield. It’s also been known to do it rather successfully.

But not all of the Gophers’ tendencies have been good ones.

Just look at the defense.

Minnesota consistently has struggled in stopping opponents during the past three seasons. Statistically, the Gophers have ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten in almost every major defensive category during that time, including scoring defense, pass defense and total defense, among others.

“We know what we gotta do (this season),” defensive coordinator/outside linebackers coach David Lockwood said. “We gotta go out there and be better on defense.”

While the defense as a whole will have to play better, there are a couple major areas in particular Minnesota will have to improve upon from last season. The first would be getting to the quarterback with more frequency.

The Gophers recorded only nine sacks in eight conference games last season. The top two defenses in the Big Ten – Ohio State and Penn State – totaled 28 and 26 sacks, respectively, in the same number of games.

Improving on last season’s sack total could be made more difficult, considering Minnesota will have three new starters on the defensive line.

But the one holdover from last season’s group, sophomore defensive end Steve Davis, said the new group – which consists of himself, sophomore defensive end Willie Van DeSteeg and junior defensive tackles Neel Allen and Todd Meisel – has meshed well and will be better than last year’s line.

“We’re a lot more athletic on the defensive line (than last season),” Davis said. “Because we have a lot more speed and a lot more guys that can get to the quarterback. Not just with bull rushes but with other types of pass rushes.”

The line has a solid anchor in Davis, who is coming off a strong freshman campaign in which he recorded a team-high six sacks in 11 games.

Davis also said his numbers from last season could help the line as a whole because he will more than likely draw some double teams, which in turn will open things up for the other linemen.

Getting to the quarterback could also benefit the Gophers in another area they need to improve upon – forcing turnovers.

Minnesota forced five turnovers (one fumble recovery, four interceptions) in Big Ten play last season. Wisconsin and Northwestern were top in the conference in takeaways in 2005, with each team forcing 20.

Both Lockwood and junior starting outside linebacker John Shevlin said that during two-a-days, the defense has had more opportunities for turnovers.

“We’ve been getting a lot of hands on balls,” Shevlin said. “But what we need to do is capitalize and turn those into turnovers.”

As for why these extra opportunities have been occurring, Shevlin pointed to an increased knowledge of the schemes from last year – Lockwood’s first season running the defense.

“I think people are on the same page, and everybody knows each other’s assignment,” Shevlin said, “which helps you play a little more free and open and you can go ahead and make plays when you’re doing that.”

This increased comfort level could stem from the fact Lockwood hasn’t tinkered that much with the scheme.

Lockwood said the scheme, minus “a wrinkle here and a wrinkle there,” is essentially the same 4-3 “under” front – in which the core of the defense lines up closer to the weak side of the offensive line – as last year.

The Gophers seem to know the defense more so than last season, but how they performed in that scheme last season is also fresh in their minds. In fact, Shevlin said it has provided the unit with the proverbial chip on its shoulder.

“I think every defense, you have to carry a chip on your shoulder,” Shevlin said. “And especially now, coach (Glen Mason) talks about us being smaller. So I think he is putting that chip on our shoulder. And you use that chip, and you turn it into confidence.”

And confidence is certainly high within the group as the defense hopes to no longer be thought of as Minnesota’s weak link.

“You’ve gotta be optimistic when you expect to be the best,” Shevlin said.