Defense starting to take shape

by Luke Middendorf

Just like the neighboring Minnesota Twins were able to avoid Tuesday night’s snow storm by playing under the friendly confines of the Metrodome, the Minnesota football team kept itself warm and dry Tuesday for its third spring practice in the Gibson-Nagurski football complex.

As the Gophers and Twins both wait for the opening of their new outdoor stadiums in 2009 and 2010, respectively, the often unappreciated benefit of a roof and fake playing turf might not have seemed so bad this week for either team.

Although the Gophers’ first regular season football game is nearly five months away, head coach Tim Brewster had his players working on Tuesday like it could have been five weeks away.

The intensity of every drill and emphasis on playing full-speed at all times was preached at the Gophers by not just Brewster, but all of the assistant coaches.

New defensive coordinator Ted Roof – previously the head coach at Duke from 2003-07 – displays a more up-front and vocal coaching style than his predecessor Everett Withers, who left Minnesota after one season to take over the defensive coordinator position at North Carolina.

“I’ve been very impressed with how Ted Roof has handled things so far,” Brewster said.

Taking over a defense that finished dead last among Division I for total defense last season, Roof has slightly tweaked the Gophers defensive scheme and added some new faces.

One minor change in the method will be on the defensive line, which instead of two tackles and two ends features a power end, a rush, a tackle and a nose tackle. The first-team defensive linemen on Tuesday were the veteran core of senior Willie VanDeSteeg, junior Lee Campbell, senior Eric Small and junior Garrett Brown.

“(Roof) changed it up a lot, but it is a lot simpler for us to learn than last season,” VanDeSteeg said about the defensive line scheme. “It’s also good because we (the defensive line) are one of the more experienced groups on the team.”

Rumors by Brewster at the spring football press conference last week about more mass in the interior defensive line were confirmed at Tuesday’s practice, with Small and Brown noticeably more muscular and thick than last season, providing more run-stopping capability up the middle.

“You have a lot of motivation to get bigger and better after a 1-11 season,” VanDeSteeg said. “A lot of kids put on weight and had good off-seasons all-around.”

Behind the line were some familiar faces in first team senior linebackers Deon Hightower and Steve Davis, along with a combination of junior Nate Triplett, senior Kevin Mannion and junior Logan U’u.

But in the secondary – which was considered the weakest part of Minnesota’s defense last season – new faces were seen in junior-college transfer Tramaine Brock, who Brewster has been raving about from day one for his speed and leadership, and junior cornerback Michael McKelton, who will get his first chance this spring to prove his worth before an influx of freshman secondary recruits arrive this summer.

Brock, a six-foot, 187-pound safety from Mississippi, could start at either safety position next season.

“He (Brock) absolutely plays the game I want it to be played: with tremendous toughness, passion, he’s a smart kid,” Brewster said. “He’s an absolute joy to coach.”