Minnesota’s defensive backs could be Big Ten’s best

Redshirt junior Briean Boddy-Calhoun warms up at practice at TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday.

Holly Peterson

Redshirt junior Briean Boddy-Calhoun warms up at practice at TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday.

Jack Satzinger

Whenever the Gophers defense needed a lift last year, there was a pretty good chance Briean Boddy-Calhoun would make a game-altering play. As the cornerback prepares for his senior season, heâÄôs focused on leading a talented and experienced group of defensive backs. âÄúWeâÄôve got a lot of young guys coming up,âÄù Boddy-Calhoun said last month. âÄúI just really want to coach those guys and get them ready for when we leave and just to have an even better year next year.âÄù Minnesota trailed Ohio State 14-0 in the first quarter of a November matchup last season when Boddy-Calhoun intercepted a J.T. Barrett pass and returned it 56 yards to give the Gophers a stop they sorely needed. The Buckeyes eventually won the contest by a touchdown, but the score against the national champions likely would have been much greater without Boddy-CalhounâÄôs interception that flipped the gameâÄôs momentum like a switch. At No. 21 Nebraska one week later, Boddy-Calhoun made another big play âÄî this time sealing a victory. The GophersâÄô 28-24 lead was about to evaporate when DeâÄôMornay Pierson-El caught a deep pass falling toward the end zone. But before the Cornhuskers receiver could reach pay dirt, Boddy-Calhoun ripped the ball out of his hands to seal the upset. Entering their fifth season under head coach Jerry Kill, the Gophers are focused on taking another step forward after JanuaryâÄôs Citrus Bowl loss to Missouri. âÄú[The players] understand that weâÄôve got to work a little harder. We took a big stride, but at the same time you take a big stride, youâÄôve got to go one more step, and thatâÄôs not easy to do,âÄù Kill said last month. If Minnesota does improve from last season, the secondary will likely have a major impact in taking that next step. The GophersâÄô offense remains a work in progress âÄî especially with David Cobb and Maxx Williams leaving âÄî but the team will likely start four seniors in the defensive backfield: Boddy-Calhoun, Eric Murray, Antonio Johnson and Damarius Travis. That core, on top of seasoned reserve Jalen Myrick, up-and-comer Craig James and others could make MinnesotaâÄôs secondary the Big TenâÄôs best next season. ThatâÄôs a distinction Michigan State has carried lately, but top Spartans defensive backs Trae Waynes and Kurtis Drummond are headed to the NFL. On top of that, revered Michigan State defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi recently took the head coach job at Pittsburgh, and itâÄôs unclear what the SpartansâÄô defense will look like without him in the fold. As a result, MinnesotaâÄôs secondary may go from being overlooked to one of the more respected groups in the country. âÄúWeâÄôll handle [the recognition] great, because weâÄôre optimistic and we really look at our negatives and what we need to clean up,âÄù Boddy-Calhoun said. âÄúGuys are always coaching each other up and looking for ways to get better.âÄù While Boddy-Calhoun is known for making big plays, the rest of MinnesotaâÄôs likely starters in the defensive backfield bring plenty to the table. Murray was the GophersâÄô lockdown cornerback for the past two seasons, Travis is a hard hitter and Johnson has been a regular starter since his sophomore year. With Brock Vereen already in the NFL playing for the Chicago Bears and former safety Cedric Thompson likely headed toward an NFL career after a strong Pro Day, it looks like multiple current Gophers defensive backs will play at the next level as well. MurrayâÄôs name is usually the first to come up in the NFL conversation. But before he, Boddy-Calhoun, Travis or Johnson go through any NFL tryouts, theyâÄôll likely spend the fall tormenting opposing receivers together. âÄúWe ask him to cover the best receiver every week,âÄù defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said of Murray last week. âÄúJust because of what heâÄôs done that way against the best receivers in the conference, I would say [that] is one reason why heâÄôs probably going to get the first [NFL] look of all of them.âÄù