Gophers’ defense

Murali Balaji

There were times last season when the Gophers secondary was an object of pity.
During the 1998 football campaign, Minnesota’s defensive backfield was exploited by voracious pass offenses looking for the deep ball and quick scores. The corners were short, and the secondary as a whole lacked the speed to keep up with opposing receivers.
It’s no surprise, then, that Gophers coach Glen Mason made some changes this spring to avoid the treacherous performances his defensive backs turned in last season. Sophomore Jack Brewer, who was brought in as a wide receiver from Southern Methodist last season, was converted to free safety in order to bolster the overall athletic ability of the group.
“I guess it’s a compliment to me that the coaches believed that I could play any position,” Brewer said. “I’m anxious to learn and see how I’ll do in my new position.”
But Brewer admitted that he has struggled to grasp the nuances of playing on defense. And with a possible move to cornerback, the amount of information he will be asked to learn will double.
“It’s a big transition learning how to play defensive back,” he said. “You play a position for so long and suddenly everything becomes new again. It is kind of tough.”
The Gophers coaches hope Brewer is a quick learner. After failing to adapt his defensive schemes to his personnel, Mason adapted his personnel to his philosophy, which means more size and speed on defense.
Minnesota relies on man-to-man defense, which only works when the cornerbacks can play in isolation. However, it became painfully evident last season that neither the corners nor the safeties could play the type of game that Mason and defensive coordinator David Gibbs wanted.
This spring, free safety Delvin Jones and cornerback Trevis Graham are expected to take over the positions vacated by seniors Keith Dimmy and Craig Scruggs, respectively. Jones, a 6-foot, 190-pound sophomore, is a big and fast hitter who played well when he filled in for an injured Dimmy last season.
“It feels good now because this is what it is all about,” Jones said. “I want to be the best safety in the Big Ten and the nation.
“I’ve got (strong safety) Tyrone Carter to look up to now, and I feel that if he can do what he has done for the last couple of years, I am definitely capable of stepping up, too.”
Jones said he wasn’t concerned about the relative inexperience of this year’s defensive backfield, despite the departures of three players.
“We still have the depth we had last year,” he said. “You’ve got people who played a little last season like me and Trevis, but now we’re all ready to step in and play.”
A factor that could work to the Gophers’ advantage is the return of cornerback Jimmy Wyrick. The 5-foot-9 Wyrick missed all of last season with a torn tendon in his left foot, and his return could give Minnesota one of its best cover men.
“(The foot) is getting better every day,” Wyrick said. “I expect to be ready to be back by pre-fall practice.”
Wyrick is currently working in noncontact drills, and with renewed speed and strength, he could re-assert himself in the starting lineup.
“My main objective right now is to get back on the field,” he said. “I know Trevis and Willie (Middlebrooks) are the number-one guys right now, but I’ll do whatever I can to just see some action this season.”