As the dog days of summer arrive, the longing for football becomes all the more intense. Well, we here at CSNChicago.com are here to provide you with a summertime football fix. Over 40 days, CSN's Vinnie Duber will have 40 posts pondering the biggest questions heading into the 2014 Big Ten football season — the B1G 40 questions. Be sure to check out the entire B1G 40 series at csnchicago.com/big-ten.
Can the Gophers repeat last year’s success without defensive playmakers Ra’Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen?
Last season was a season for the ages in the Twin Cities. Eight-win campaigns don’t around too often for the Gophers. In fact, in Jerry Kill’s third season at the helm, the Gophers won eight games for the first time since 2003, just the fourth time since 1967 and 18th time ever.
And though Minnesota had a terrific running game led by returning running back David Cobb — and were playing much of the season inspired following Kill’s departure from the sidelines to better manage his epilepsy — it was the defense that contributed an awful lot to that rarely seen success. The Gophers ranked fourth in the Big Ten in scoring defense, allowing just 22.2 points per game, and sixth in total defense, allowing 373.2 yards per game (not even three yards more than the No. 4 team).
Kill and the Gophers had two players in particular to thank for leading such a strong defensive unit: defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and defensive back Brock Vereen. Those two were big-time playmakers for Minnesota a year ago. Hageman was one of the more feared defensive lineman in the conference, finishing with 38 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, two sacks and an interception. Vereen, meanwhile, finished with 59 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, an interception and a forced fumble. The conference’s coaches named them both to their All-Big Ten First Team, and both were selected early in this spring’s NFL Draft: Hageman a first-round pick of the Falcons and Vereen a second-round selection of the Bears.
So how is a defense to recover from losing such playmakers?
The Gophers will have a tough time, but while they lose arguably their top two defensive players, they do return a good deal of their defensive starters. That includes every starting defensive lineman besides Hageman, a unit that is expected to start four upperclassmen in 2014. Most noteworthy is Theiren Cockran, who was unheralded but right there with Hageman last season. Cockran finished his sophomore season with 10 tackles for loss and a team-high 7.5 sacks (third in the Big Ten) and four forced fumbles (most in the Big Ten). The Gophers also return three starters in the secondary, including safeties Cedric Thompson and Antonio Johnson, and middle linebacker Damien Wilson. Those three were three of the team’s four top tacklers a season ago.
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The biggest downside for the Gophers defense — and the team as a whole — heading into this season is whether last year’s performance is repeatable. An eight-win season is a lot different from a six-win season, and just a couple key plays were all that separated Minnesota from eight and six wins last year. They clinched victories against Northwestern and Indiana very late — thanks to mistakes by those opponents — and won each game by just three points. Wins against teams like Northwestern and Nebraska might not be as easy to come by this season.
But the good news is that the conference schedule isn’t necessarily as tough as it was a year ago. Games still exist against Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa, but a three-game stretch against Northwestern, Purdue and Illinois could provide opportunities for wins. The Gophers played four ranked teams last season during conference play, with two of those games coming on the road.
Add that to a lot of experience on both sides of the ball, and the Gophers should be able to weather the losses of Hageman and Vereen. Things have just gone up under Kill — from 3-9 to 6-7 to 8-5 — and while it’s going to be mighty difficult to go up from there, another season like last isn’t necessarily out of the question.