Staff changes energizing much-maligned defense

The Gophers are counting on a change for the better in their defensive systems.

David McCoy

Minnesota’s football team finished last in the Big Ten and 109 out of 114 Division I-A teams in pass defense in 2004. Overall, the defense was just 76th in the country, making it obviously a sore spot of last year’s team.

So logically, the Gophers promoted their defensive backs coach to defensive coordinator.

It might seem counterintuitive, but Minnesota believes in David Lockwood and is counting on him to turn around the team’s iffy defense, regardless of last season’s output.

To scratch the problem right where it itched, Minnesota hired Kerry Cooks to replace Lockwood in the secondary and Carey Bailey as the new defensive line coach.

And though the most glaring defensive issue was indeed pass coverage, Bailey said his role will play just as big a part of solving that problem as anybody’s.

“Especially in this conference, you have to play good run defense,” Bailey said. “But at the same time, you have to play good pass defense, and the best pass defense is a good rush.”

Bailey, who coached Oklahoma State’s defensive line last season, replaces Tom Sims. Lockwood took over for Greg Hudson, who left prior to last year’s Music City Bowl.

Cooks coached Western Illinois’ defensive backs last season. He also played in the NFL from 1998 until 2001, which he expects to help him gain the respect of his players.

“Guys respect guys who have been where they’re trying to get to,” Cooks said. “And I’ve been fortunate enough to play in the NFL. So I think that adds a little credibility to my resume when I’m coming in.”

What seems to appeal to the players about Cooks is not only his NFL experience, but his youth. Safety John Pawielski said Cooks has been able to relate to the players well.

Bailey has been described as very tough and aggressive, which seems to have endeared him to many of the players already. He introduced a new drill in which players have to run through another player to get to a tackling dummy.

“It brings the toughness out of people,” senior linebacker Kyle McKenzie said. “They want to dish out the hit before receiving the hit.”

McKenzie, who led the team in tackles last season and is expected to be one of the main leaders on defense this year, said he thinks the new coaches have already made a positive impact on the team.

“I think it made the team more aggressive,” McKenzie said. “We’re starting to hit a lot more, tackling a little better.

It made an all-around improvement on the defense, and the morale has gone through the roof. I think what the coaches bring is that toughness and that desire to win and that attitude. And the attitude carried over to the defense, I believe.”

Another thing the Gophers expect to improve the defense is a simplified playbook, which the team switched to prior to the Music City Bowl.

Senior defensive tackle Anthony Montgomery said it should make a difference because players will have to think less about the situation and therefore will be able to react more quickly.

The main buzzword around the defense at Friday’s Media Day was “attitude.”

It seems the coaching staff shakeup has done just what it was intended to do, so far.

“Everybody comes in energized and looking forward to that particular day,” Bailey said. “Probably the biggest thing right now is that everybody’s in the right mindset with regards to what we’re trying to get accomplished and the approach we have to take to get those things done.”