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Posts Tagged ‘Eric Murray’

#15 Michigan vs Minnesota game preview

Friday, October 30th, 2015


Game Preview_Minnesota_banner

After a week off Michigan returns to the field tomorrow night looking to get the bad taste of the Michigan State loss out of its collective mouth. The Wolverines travel north to Minneapolis to face a Golden Gophers squad that just lost its coach.

UM-Min-small
Quick Facts
TCF Bank Stadium – 7p.m. EST – ESPN
Minn Head Coach: Tracy Claeys (Interim)
Coaching Record: (0-0)
Offensive Coordinator: Matt Limegrover (5th season)
Defensive Coordinator: Tracy Claeys (5th season)
Last Season: 8-5 (5-3)
Last Meeting: Minn 30 – UM 14 (2014)
All-Time Series: UM leads 73-25-3
For the Little Brown Jug: UM leads 69-23-2
Record in Minneapolis: UM leads 32-12-2
Jim Harbaugh vs Minn: 1st meeting
Last Michigan win: 2013 (42-13)
Last Minnesota win: 2014 (30-14)
Current Streak: Minnesota 1

Jerry Kill abruptly announced his retirement due to health reasons on Wednesday. In the four-plus seasons on the job Kill turned around a struggling Minnesota program into a Big Ten title contender, achieving 8-5 records in 2013 and 2014. The Gophers finished second in the Big Ten West last fall and began this season with a close, six point loss to TCU. But after wins over Colorado State (23-20 in overtime), Kent State (10-7), and Ohio University (27-24), Minnesota has dropped two of its last three. Northwestern shut out the Gophers 27-0 the week before Michigan shut out the Wildcats 38-0. Then, after beating Purdue 41-13, Minnesota dropped a 48-25 contest to Nebraska.

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys stepped in as the interim head coach for the balance of the season. Interestingly, the last time Michigan visited Minneapolis Kill missed the game due to a seizure and Claeys coached it. Michigan won that one 42-13, but the Wolverines were embarrassed a year ago in the Big House. Shane Morris started the game, but suffered a “probable, mild concussion,” which may have been the last straw for Brady Hoke and Dave Brandon.

Minnesota wants a win for Coach Kill and to avoid falling to .500. Michigan wants this win to regain the Little Brown Jug, to get past the Michigan State loss, and to remain in the Big Ten title hunt.

Let’s take a look at the matchups.

When Minnesota has the ball

Minnesota’s offense ranks 101st nationally and 11th in the Big Ten in total offense (351 yards per game), 84th and ninth in rushing (156.7 yards per game), 95th and 11th in passing (194.3 yards per game), 106th and 11th in pass efficiency (113.31), and 110th and 14th in scoring (20.4 points per game).

Quarterback Mitch Leidner ranks ninth in the Big Ten in passing, averaging 187.1 yards per game, one yard more than Jake Rudock. Leidner has completed 59.2 percent of his passes (Rudock 61.7 percent) for 1,310 yards, seven touchdowns, and six interceptions. He’s also the team’s third leading rusher with 121 yards (2.1 yards per carry) and three touchdowns.

Redshirt freshman Rodney Smith leads the way on the ground with 467 yards (4.1 yards per carry) and one score, averaging 66.7 yards per game. He had a 100-yard game in Week 2 against Colorado State, but managed just 20 yards on eight carries against Nebraska last time out. True freshman Shannon Brooks leads the team in yards per carry (7.0). He didn’t play in the first three games of the season but has shared the load with Smith the last four. He broke out for 176 yards and a touchdown on 17 carries against Purdue but like Smith was held to just 25 yards on eight carries against Nebraska.

Four Gopher receivers have over 100 receiving yards on the season, led by senior K.J. Maye‘s 350 yards and three touchdowns. Maye had his best game of the season against Nebraska when he caught 11 passes for 94 yards, but after scoring touchdowns in each of the first three games, he has been held out of the end zone in the last four. Junior Drew Wolitarsky is just behind Maye with 297 yards and one score, while redshirt sophomore Eric Carter has 21 receptions for 245 yards and a touchdown. Sophomore tight end Brandon Lingen is the fourth with more than 100 yards (109) and he’s the only pass catcher other than Maye with multiple touchdowns (two).

The offensive line has seen some injuries this season and left tackle Josh Campion, who had started 39 straight games entering the season, and center Brian Bobek, an Ohio State transfer who began the season as the starting center, are still out this week.

Redshirt junior left tackle Ben Lauer has 12 career starts under his belt. He was the starting left tackle entering the season, but an injury caused him to miss three of the next four games. He returned against Purdue and Nebraska. Fifth year senior left guard Joe Bjorklund has 10 career starts including seven last season. True freshman Tyler Moore is forced into action, while sophomore right guard Conner Mayes and redshirt junior right tackle Jonah Pirsig have both started every game this season.

When Michigan has the ball

Minnesota’s defense ranks 28th nationally and seventh in the Big Ten in total defense (328.7 yards per game), 52nd and 9th in rush defense (151.4 yards per game), 18th and 5th in pass defense (177.3 yards per game), 21st and 6th in pass defense efficiency (107.91), and 45th and 9th in scoring defense (23.1 points per game).

The defensive line is anchored by sophomore tackle Steven Richardson, who leads the team with 3.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss. The other tackle, Scott Ekpe has yet to record a sack, but has two tackles for loss. Fifth year senior defensive end Thieren Cockran has seemingly been around forever and is the Gopher that gave Shane Morris his concussion last season. He has two sacks and five tackles for loss, while the other end, Hendrick Ekpe, has a half of a sack.

Redshirt junior linebacker Jack Lynn is the team’s third leading tackler with 36 and has the second most tackles for loss with six. Fifth year senior De’Vondre Campbell is a multi-year stater and has 34 tackles, one sack, an interception and four passes defended. Sophomore Jonathan Celestin is the third starter at linebacker with 28 tackles and three for loss. Redshirt sophomore Cody Poock is the top reserve as the team’s second leading tackler.

Senior safety Antonio Johnson leads the team with 48 tackles to go along with two for loss, two passes defended, and a fumble recovery. The other safety is redshirt sophomore Adekunle Ayinde, who 22 tackles and four passes defended. Senior Eric Murray and fifth year senior Briean Boddy-Calhoun are the starting corners, while Jalen Myrick is the nickel corner. Myrick leads the team with three interceptions and six passes defended, while Murray also has a pick.

The other third

Both kicking specialists are veterans. Kicker Ryan Santoso was the team’s kicker as a redshirt freshman in 2014, connecting on 12 of 18 field goal attempts with a long of 52. So far this season he is 10 of 13 with a long of 50. Fifth year senior punter Peter Mortell ranks fourth in the Big Ten with an average of 44.0 yards per punt. He has booted 12 of his 43 punts longer than 50 yards and downed 18 inside the 20.

Myrick and Brooks share the kick return duties, averaging 21.4 and 18.7 yards per return, respectively. Sophomore defensive back Craig James is the normal punt returner, but is out with an injury, so Myrick and freshman KiAnte Hardin will do the job.

Prediction

Michigan will come out focused and determined to reclaim the Little Brown Jug and stay in the Big Ten title hunt. Minnesota’s defense is just average against the run and allowed 203 yards on 5.3 yards per carry to Nebraska, which managed just 82 rushing yards last week against Northwestern. Expect a heavy dose of De’Veon Smith and Drake Johnson, who should finally be healthy.

Minnesota doesn’t have the offense to keep up with Michigan, so the main question will be whether or not Michigan’s defense can record its fourth shutout of the season. Northwestern shut Minnesota out 27-0 and the Gophers managed just 10 points against Kent State, who is just 3-5 at this point and has given up at least 10 points in every other game.

It won’t be a pretty or exciting game, but it will be classic Jim Harbaugh as Michigan pounds the ball on the ground and wears down the Gopher defense. Jake Rudock has a classic Jake Rudock day and Michigan wins and returns the jug to its rightly place.

Michigan 35 – Minnesota 6

First Look: Minnesota

Monday, October 26th, 2015


Jerry Kill(GopherSports.com)

Michigan got a week to think about — or get over — one of the most heartbreaking losses in program history. When the Wolverines return to the field Saturday in Minneapolis, they still have the Big Ten title to play for, with a little help. It’s now a five game season and it begins with the Golden Gophers, a team that has underperformed this season after embarrassing Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2014.

Minnesota team stats & Michigan comparison
Minnesota | Michigan Rank Defense Rank
Points Per Game 20.4 | 28.6 110 | 70
23.1 | 9.3 45 | 1
Rushing Yards 1,097 1,270 1,060 453
Rush Avg. Per Game 156.7 181.4 94 49
151.4 64.7 52 2
Avg. Per Rush 4.1 | 4.4
3.9 2.1
Passing Yards 1,360 1,303 1,241 1,021
Pass Avg. Per Game 194.3 186.1 95 98 177.3 145.9 18 4
Total Offense 2,457 2,573 2,301 1,474
Total Off Avg. Per Game 351.0 367.6 101 90 328.7 210.6 28 1
Kick Return Average 18.4 33.4 103 2 21.4 18.8 73 | 27
Punt Return Average 2.3 10.3 122 48 9.9 6.1 89 | 27
Avg. Time of Possession 30:06 | 34:05 63 | 5
29:54 | 25:55
3rd Down Conversion Pct 37.0% | 41.0% 89 | 58
36.0% | 20.0% 47 | 1
Sacks Allowed-Yards/By-Yards 12-60 | 11-57
T51 | T39
10-53 | 18-135
T103 | 34
Touchdowns Scored 16 24
19 | 9
Field Goals-Attempts 10-13 | 10-12
10-13 | 1-4
Red Zone Scores (16-20) 80%|(24-25) 96% T93 | T4
(19-22) 86%|(7-8) 88% 87 T92
Red Zone Touchdowns (9-20) 45%|(17-25) 68% (12-22) 55%|(6-8) 75%

After setting high expectations with back to back 8-5 seasons in 2013 and ’14, Jerry Kill’s squad has been a letdown through the first seven weeks of 2015. It opened in promising fashion hard-fought six point loss to then-No. 2 TCU, but over the next six weeks, the Gophers have produced exactly one convincing win and that came by way of Big Ten doormat Purdue. A 23-20 overtime win over Colorado State, a 10-7 win over Kent State, and a 27-24 win over Ohio university don’t exactly look great on the resume even though they do go down in the ‘W’ column.

Minnesota was shut out 27-0 by Northwestern a week before Michigan turned around and spanked the Wildcats 38-0. In their last time out — Minnesota had a bye last weekend just like Michigan — the Gophers were dismantled by a 3-4 Nebraska squad, 48-25.

So what has gone wrong? Minnesota’s offense has struggled to move the ball and put up points against anybody not named Purdue. They’ve been shut out once, held to 17 points or fewer in three of seven games, and 27 or fewer in six. Their 20.4-point scoring average ranks 110th nationally and dead last in the Big Ten. Their total offense ranks 101st nationally and 10th in the Big Ten, ahead of Purdue, Penn State, and Northwestern. Northwestern’s offense is lower only because it has already faced Michigan’s defense.

Minnesota’s rushing offense ranks 94th nationally and ninth in the conference, but did get a spark from freshman Shannon Brooks with 17 carries for 176 yards and a touchdown against Purdue. But then again, it was Purdue. The passing offense ranks 95th nationally and 11th in the conference, one spot ahead of Michigan with about eight more passing yards per game.

Defensively, Minnesota is still pretty stout, ranking among the middle of the pack in the Big Ten in most categories, 28th nationally in total defense, and 18th in pass defense. It held TCU’s high powered offense to a season low 23 points — 22 fewer than the Horned Frogs’ next lowest point total of 45 against Iowa State last weekend. But on the other side of the coin, Minnesota allowed a Nebraska offense that averages 31.6 points per game to score a season high 48 two weeks ago.

Nebraska rushed for 203 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per attempt, against the Gophers’ rush defense, which is where Michigan’s offense can take advantage. Minnesota ranks 52nd nationally and ninth in the Big Ten against the run.

Special teams could also play a big factor this Saturday, although hopefully not nearly as dramatically as it did last time out. Minnesota ranks 122nd nationally in punt returns, 103rd in kick returns, 89th in punt return defense, and 73rd in kick return defense. Michigan, on the other hand, ranks 48th in punt returns, second in kick returns, and 27th in both kick and punt return defense. The Wolverines have used special teams to make up for its work-in-progress offense by averaging good starting field position.

So what can we expect on Saturday night? A Minnesota student section full of costumes is a given, but aside from any Halloween trickery, Michigan should come home with win number six. The main question will be can Michigan’s defense start a new shutout streak?

 

2014 Big Ten football position rankings: Cornerbacks (part one)

Thursday, July 24th, 2014


Big-Ten-position-rankings-header-CB

This is the eighth installment of Maize and Go Blue’s series that ranks the best Big Ten players at each position for the upcoming season. Each week until Michigan’s opener, one position will be previewed, looking at the players who will excel in 2014, not necessarily the ones who did so in previous seasons. The analysis provided is thorough and in-depth, so each position preview will be split into two parts. The best Big Ten players on offense and in the defensive front seven have been covered. This week, it is time to preview who will be the best cornerbacks in the conference this season. Here is Part One:

Previously

Quarterbacks: Part One, Part Two | Running Backs: Part One, Part Two | Wide Receivers: Part One, Part Two
Tight Ends: Part One, Part Two | Offensive Line: Part One, Part Two | Defensive Line: Part One, Part Two
Linebackers: Part One, Part Two

10. Nick VanHoose, Northwestern | RS Junior – 6’0”, 190 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 40 21 61 5.0 0 8 0
2012 26 7 33 0.5 0 7 3
2011 0 0 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 66 28 94 5.5 0 15 3
(Meghan White, The Daily Northwestern)

(Meghan White, The Daily Northwestern)

Despite having fewer tackles, interceptions, and pass breakups than Indiana’s Tim Bennett, Northwestern’s Nick VanHoose cracks this top-10 list while Bennett is left out in the cold. In fact, Bennett—even with 73 tackles, 3.5 tackles-for-loss, one interception, and a nation-best 21 passes defended last season—was never really in consideration. There were two or three other Big Ten cornerbacks, including Michigan State sophomore Darian Hicks, who participated primarily on special teams last year, that had better odds to knock VanHoose out of the top 10 than Bennett. How so? There is more to an evaluation of a cornerback than just individual statistics.

Although Bennett led the country in both pass breakups (20) and passes defended (21) last season, he was a member of one of the worst secondaries in the nation. You may want to look away. The following numbers are quite horrifying. Indiana finished 118th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (290.2), 112th in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt (7.7), 103rd in passing efficiency defense (147.15), and allowed more 25-plus-yard completions than any other team in the Big Ten. While all of this cannot be blamed on Bennett, it was his responsibility to cover and contain the opponent’s No. 1 receiver. And Bennett was quite irresponsible. He allowed top wideouts like Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon (14 catches, Big Ten-record 369 yards, two touchdowns), Penn State’s Allen Robinson (12 catches, 173 yards, two touchdowns), and Illinois’ Steve Hull (9 catches, 224 yards, two touchdowns) to have their best performance of the season against the Hoosiers. Therefore, do not let individual statistics like passes defended fool you. There is always a bigger picture. And, here, the picture is clear: Bennett is not near one of the best 10 cornerbacks in the Big Ten.

One who will be this upcoming season is VanHoose. He has experience—he started 22 games at cornerback as a redshirt freshman and sophomore the past two seasons—and has produced in various ways. As a redshirt freshman, VanHoose notched 33 tackles and seven pass breakups but made his biggest impact generating turnovers. He intercepted three passes—his average of 0.30 picks per game was fourth-best in the Big Ten—and recovered three fumbles. The following year, the turnovers vanished, as VanHoose forced only one fumble and intercepted no passes. Nonetheless, he found other ways to contribute. Mainly, he improved his run support, accumulating 61 tackles and five tackles-for-loss, which are the most among returning Big Ten defensive backs. And, despite failing to record an interception last season, VanHoose still was in the vicinity of the receiver, breaking up eight passes. Entering his third year as a starter, VanHoose should be able to demonstrate all of these abilities as a pass and run defender in one season and put together the most all-around campaign of his career.

Similar to Bennett and Indiana, questions will be asked about VanHoose and Northwestern’s pass defense overall. The Wildcats’ national rank in passing yards allowed per game was dreadful (99th), but the advanced metrics indicate their pass defense was better than that suggests. The Wildcats were 52nd in sack-adjusted passing yards allowed per attempt (6.1) and 73rd in Passing Defense S&P+, an advanced statistical model which analyzes what defenses allow on a given play versus what they are expected to allow. Northwestern’s pass defense was not nearly as poor as Indiana’s last year, but it still was below average.

9. William Likely, Maryland | Sophomore – 5’7″, 175 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 51 19 70 4.5 0 7 1
Career Totals 51 19 70 4.5 0 7 1
(Bruce Chapman, Winston-Salem Journal)

(Bruce Chapman, Winston-Salem Journal)

At 5’7”, Maryland’s William Likely will be the shortest cornerback on this list. However, Likely has never allowed his limited stature to prevent him from excelling as a cornerback on the football field. In high school, Likely was considered a high three-star recruit in 247’s composite national rankings, but two recruiting services—Rivals and ESPN—rated him as a four-star. And Likely certainly had the offers of a four-star prospect, too. Reportedly, he received scholarship offers from LSU, Stanford, and Miami (FL) but chose to enroll at Maryland.

As a true freshman last season, Likely did not expect much playing time in the secondary with experienced starters Dexter McDougle and Jeremiah Johnson on the roster. However, McDougle broke his shoulder blade and Johnson fractured his toe early in the year, thrusting Likely into the lineup just a few weeks into his collegiate career. For a true freshman cornerback, Likely performed well in his 11 starts. He led the Terrapins with seven passes defended, one of which was an interception against Syracuse. Likely has a significant height disadvantage when marking outside wide receivers but compensates with his superb speed and agility to maintain tight coverage on his man. In case you are wondering just how superb, he was also Maryland’s kick and punt returner last season. What was even more impressive for a player of his size, though, was his willingness to provide solid run support. Likely had had the fifth-most tackles on the team with 70 and 4.5 tackles-for-loss, which is a high number for any cornerback, let alone one listed at 5’7”. Likely still had his freshman flaws throughout the year, but it was an impressive debut considering the circumstances.

Accordingly, big things are expected from Likely as a sophomore this fall. The question is whether Likely will sufficiently improve to shape up an experienced secondary that was only average against the pass last season. The Terrapins finished 57th nationally in passing yards allowed per game, 64th in passing efficiency defense, and 64th in Passing Defense S&P+. However, these probably would have been worse if not for Maryland’s pass rush. The Terps averaged 2.85 sacks per game, which was 18th-best in the country. Consequently, with sacks included, Maryland allowed only 5.7 passing yards per attempt, good enough for 26th-best in the nation. Some of these sacks were the result of excellent coverage where the quarterback had nowhere to throw, but the prevailing thought is that Maryland’s front-seven saved an average secondary’s behind. The bad news for Maryland is that it lost one of its top pass-rushers in linebacker Marcus Whitfield (15.5 tackles-for-loss, nine sacks). The good news is that it returns all of its other key defensive contributors, including the rest of the pass-rushing front-seven. If Likely makes the sophomore leap that many expect, Maryland’s pass defense should see a boost in its performance.

8. Raymon Taylor, Michigan | Senior – 5’10”, 182 lbs.
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 61 25 86 1.5 0.5 9 4
2012 33 12 45 0 0 1 2
2011 1 1 2 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 95 38 133 1.5 0.5 10 6
(Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

(Jonathan Daniel, Getty Images)

For much of last season, Raymon Taylor was the subject of frequent discussion among Michigan fans about whether he had developed into an above-average cornerback in the Big Ten. When Taylor became a permanent fixture in the starting lineup early in the 2012 season as a true sophomore, his impact was limited. Although he intercepted two passes, including a key one he returned 63 yards for a touchdown to ignite a rout of Purdue, he broke up only one other pass all season long. Three passes defended in 11 starts and 13 games? This is the sign of a cornerback who either had such tight coverage that quarterbacks did not throw in his general direction or struggled to stay close with his man. Given that Michigan was ranked No. 54 nationally in Passing Defense S&P+ and eighth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per attempt, the latter option is the answer here. Plus, Taylor provided little in run support, registering only 45 tackles and zero tackles-for-loss. Accordingly, fans began to look at the depth chart and incoming recruits to see if there was a suitable replacement for Taylor for 2013 season.

Yet Taylor demonstrated that there was no suitable replacement for him, even after Michigan brought in a blossoming crop of freshmen defensive backs in Jourdan Lewis, Channing Stribling, and Dymonte Thomas. He showed improvement in all facets of the game. Against the pass, Taylor transformed from a cornerback that rarely made plays on the ball into one that got his hands on multiple throws. His 13 passes defended were tied for the seventh-most in the Big Ten, and his four interceptions were tied for the third-most. What was most impressive about his interceptions was that they were created by his coverage, not by lucky bounces or ricochets. He played much tighter coverage on his man and, accordingly, saw favorable results. Against the run, Taylor still had issues, but he was much better in 2013 than in 2012. He actually led Michigan with 86 tackles, 61 of which were solo, almost doubling the number of tackles he had the prior season. Although many of Taylor’s stops can be attributed to tackles he made after he allowed his receiver catch the ball underneath against soft coverage, the large increase in tackles indicated he was more willing to assist his teammates in run support.

So, to answer many Michigan fans’ question, yes, Taylor is an above-average cornerback in the Big Ten. He still has room to improve in defending and containing the run on the perimeter, but his coverage is much tighter and more technically sound. Plus, this season, Michigan plans to play more press coverage, which suits Taylor’s abilities more than dropping him into a soft zone where he has a tendency to let free the receiver he is supposed to mark. Of course, even in press coverage, there still are concerns that he will be beat over the top like Kansas State’s Tyler Lockett and everyone from Indiana did time and time again. However, Lockett was one of the best wideouts in the nation last season, and Indiana’s no-huddle tempo was the reason for the slipups in coverage. Entering his senior season and third year as a starter, Taylor will put together his best campaign yet. He should have fewer tackles because he will not allow as many catches underneath in press coverage, but his passes defended should increase. Teams will try to test Taylor to avoid Michigan’s other cornerback, who is a bit higher on this list, only to discover that Taylor, too, is one of the better corners in the Big Ten.

7. Doran Grant, Ohio State | Senior – 5’11”, 193 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 43 15 58 2.0 0 13 3
2012 15 4 19 1.0 1.0 2 1
2011 3 3 6 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 61 22 83 3.0 1.0 15 4
(Jim Davidson, The Ozone)

(Jim Davidson, The Ozone)

Ohio State’s Doran Grant is considered by NFL scouts and personnel to be one of the best senior cornerback prospects in the nation. In fact, some scouts foresee Grant being the fourth cornerback selected in the next NFL Draft, meaning he would be taken in the one of the first two rounds. NFL personnel drool over Grant because he oozes with physical talent that can translate to the next level. As a former high four-star prospect in high school, he drips with the type of athleticism that gives him the ability to frequently make game-changing plays. Just look at the impact he had as Ohio State’s second corner in his first full season as a starter last year. Grant posted 58 tackles, 43 of which were solo, two tackles-for-loss, one forced fumble, three interceptions, and 10 pass breakups. His 13 passes defended were tied for the seventh-most in the conference, and he proved he could be an asset in run support. Ultimately, with his athleticism, Grant is a player that has unbelievable potential as a cornerback.

However, there is a “but,” and, in this case, it is significant. For all of the positive momentum-shifting plays Grant makes with his dynamic athleticism, he makes just as many negative ones. Grant has too many mental mishaps that allow opponents to break what should be no or small gains into huge plays. Whether it was misplaying his coverage or taking a poor angle on a tackle attempt, Grant simply made too many mistakes. And he was not the only Buckeye defensive back with this problem either. For example, no Big Ten team allowed more completions of 15 yards or more than Ohio State with 77 of them last season. Further, Grant was a member of an Ohio State secondary enriched with NFL talent that was only eighth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per attempt (7.0). The Buckeyes had one of the best pass rushes nationally, so their sack-adjusted numbers are much better. Nonetheless, this indicates that Ohio State, including Grant, pass defense struggled if the pass rush from the front-seven did not get home. This was a very poor reflection on Ohio State’s secondary.

And it is difficult to see Ohio State’s secondary improving this upcoming season. The Buckeyes lost both of their starting safeties and first-round cornerback Bradley Roby to the NFL this past spring. Grant is the only returning starter of the defensive back-four, and Ohio State’s returning safeties have very little experience. It will be upon Grant to replace the impact lost with Roby’s departure as the top cornerback on the depth chart and shore up the holes in this secondary. Grant continues to receive praise from NFL personnel and Ohio State coaches that claim Grant just needs to continue to “make strides in man coverage” to rise up the draft boards. But how much improvement mentally can be expected from a cornerback that fell asleep too often last season? If Grant realizes his full potential, he easily would be one of the top five cornerbacks in the conference. But the best guess is that Grant will continue to make too many dumb errors next season, which is why he is No. 7 on this list.

6. Eric Murray, Minnesota | Junior – 6’0”, 195 lbs
Solo Assisted Total Tackles Tackles-for-Loss Sacks P Def INT
2013 44 8 52 1.0 0 10 0
2012 4 1 5 0 0 0 0
Career Totals 48 9 57 1.0 0 10 0
(Amanda Snyder, Minnesota Daily)

(Amanda Snyder, Minnesota Daily)

Minnesota’s Eric Murray probably was the best Big Ten cornerback that no one talked about last season. After contributing primarily on special teams as a true freshman in 2012, Murray stepped into the starting cornerback role as a sophomore last year. Although Minnesota’s defense was somewhat below average, finishing 81st nationally in yards allowed per play and 65th in Defensive S&P+, much of those woes fell on Minnesota’s front-seven, not Murray and the rest of the secondary. Minnesota’s passing defense was slight above average, ranking fifth in the Big Ten in passing yards allowed per play and 47th nationally in Passing Defense S&P+. And Murray played a big role in this, leading the Gophers with 10 pass breakups, which already ties for the 11th-most all-time in school history. Additionally, Murray registered 52 tackles, 44 of which were solo, one tackle-for-loss, and a fumble recovery. By the end of the season, the Big Ten coaches and media began to recognize his performance, giving him an honorable mention on the All-Big Ten team. But, during the season, he received no attention.

The key reason why Murray received little press was because, unlike many of the other corners on this list, he did not accumulate any interceptions. Interceptions are flashy and easy indicators that a cornerback is performing well. But there is always a bigger picture. A look at Murray’s game film reveals why he has yet to nab his first interception. Murray thrives in press coverage when Minnesota lines up in man-to-man. At 6’0” and 195 pounds, he is able to jam the opposing receivers on the line, preventing them from releasing into their route. Accordingly, Murray did not have many passes to defend because the quarterback only occasionally had the opportunity to target Murray’s man. On the other hand, many of the Big Ten’s best wide receivers had their worst days against Minnesota. Penn State’s Allen Robinson, who averaged 119.3 receiving yards per game, gained only 18 yards in the nine times he was defended by Murray. Michigan’s Jeremy Gallon, who averaged 105.6 receiving yards per game, had only 30 yards in the 11 plays he was guarded by Murray. Indiana’s Cody Latimer, who averaged 91.3 yards per game? Only 25 yards in the 13 plays Murray locked him up. The trend is pretty clear: despite the lack of interceptions, Murray’s press coverage is a difficult challenge for even the Big Ten’s best wideouts.

Expect much of the same from Murray in 2014. With a one year of starting experience under his belt, he will be able to fine-tune his press technique and improve upon it even further. Wideouts will continue to have a hard time releasing off the line of scrimmage against him. There will be times when those wideouts are successful and beat Murray over the top, but this is the consequence of banking on your ability to press and press some more. Also, it certainly would not hurt if Murray decided to record a few interceptions either this year. Because, if he does, he may be better than one—or some—of the next five cornerbacks on this list. And then he would receive all of the attention he would ever need.

What do you think so far? Do you agree with the first five names on this list? Did we leave someone out of the top 10 that deserves to be here? What about Michigan’s Raymon Taylor? Should he be higher or lower than No. 8 on this list? Who do you think will round out the top five tomorrow? Please leave your thoughts in the comment section below.

2014 opponent preview: Minnesota

Wednesday, July 16th, 2014


2014 Opponent Preview - Minnesota

We have already previewed the two easiest teams on Michigan’s schedule, Appalachian State and Miami (Ohio). On the docket today is the third-easiest, and the first Big Ten opponent on the schedule, the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Overview

Schedule
Date Opponent
Aug. 28 Eastern Illinois
Sept. 6 Middle Tennessee State
Sept. 13 at TCU
Sept. 20 San Jose State
Sept. 27 at Michigan
Oct. 11 Northwestern
Oct. 18 Purdue
Oct. 25 at Illinois
Nov. 8 Iowa
Nov. 15 Ohio State
Nov. 22 at Nebraska
Nov. 29 at Wisconsin

Minnesota is on an upward swing in Jerry Kill’s fourth season. The Gophers have gone from 3-9 to 6-7 to 8-5 the past three seasons, and if they can improve their record again this fall — a tall order, to be sure — Kill will have done something that hasn’t been done since the 1940s — improve Minnesota’s record for three straight seasons. Minnesota’s legendary coach, Bernie Bierman, was the last to do it from 1945-48. Glen Mason had a chance to achieve the feat twice during his tenure, but each time fell back to earth. He did, however, reach 10 wins in 2003, and Kill will hope to parlay the momentum he has built into a similar outcome.

Kill did get a nice vote of confidence in the form of a new contract that will bump his salary up from $1 million per year to $2.3 million through 2018. Now that he has begun the process of raising expectations, the schedule doesn’t do him any favors.

Minnesota faces both Michigan and Ohio State from the Big Ten East and a killer November that has the Gophers closing the season with Iowa, Ohio State, at Nebraska, and at Wisconsin. The non-conference slate is manageable with home games against Eastern Illinois, Middle Tennessee, and San Jose State, and a road trip to TCU.

Last season, the Gophers breezed through the non-conference portion of the schedule, topping UNLV, New Mexico State, Western Illinois, and San Jose State by an average of three touchdowns. But Iowa and Michigan outscored Minnesota 65-20 in back-to-back weeks. The Gophers then reeled off four straight over Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana, and Penn State — their first four-game Big Ten winning streak in 40 years — before dropping their final three to Wisconsin, Michigan State, and Syracuse in the Texas Bowl. Aside from the Iowa and Michigan games, Minnesota held its own even in its losses. They trailed Wisconsin just 13-7 at halftime before losing 20-7 and trailed Michigan State just 7-3 at the half before falling 14-3. A last-minute touchdown surrendered to Syracuse kept the Gophers from reaching nine wins.

Offense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
QB Mitch Leidner 6’4″, 237 48-78 for 619 yds, 3 TD, 1 INT; 89 rush, 477 yds, 7 TD
RB David Cobb 5’11”, 229 1,202 yds (5.1 avg), 7 TD
WR Drew Wolitarsky 6’3″, 226 15 rec. for 259 yds, 1 TD
WR Donovahn Jones 6’3″, 200 10 rec. for 157 yds, 0 TD
WR Isaac Fruechte 6’3″, 202 13 rec. for 154 yds, 0 TD
TE Maxx Williams 6’4″, 250 25 rec. for 417 yds, 5 TD
LT Ben Lauer 6’7″, 315 4 starts (4 career starts)
LG Zac Epping 6’2″, 318 13 starts (34 career starts)
C Tommy Olson 6’4″, 306 4 starts (15 career starts)
RG Josh Campion 6’5″, 317 13 starts (26 career starts)
RT Jonah Pirsig 6’9″, 320

Minnesota’s offense ranked 85th nationally with an average of 25.7 points per game, 107th in total offense (343.3 yards per game), and 117th in passing (148.1 ypg). The bright spot was the running game which ranked 38th with an average of 195.2 rushing yards per game. With last year’s most-experienced quarterback, Phillip Nelson, gone, the running game will once again be Minnesota’s calling card on offense.

David Cobb rushed for over 1,200 yards last season (Nam Y. Huh, AP)

David Cobb rushed for over 1,200 yards last season (Nam Y. Huh, AP)

Senior David Cobb is one of the best running backs in the conference. Our very own Drew Hallett ranked him seventh-best in his Big Ten position rankings. He came out of nowhere to rush for 1,202 yards on 5.1 yards per carry in 2013, becoming the first Gopher to eclipse 1,000 yards since 2006. He was held to just 22 yards on seven carries against Michigan, but had six 100-yard games, including against Michigan State.

Cobb isn’t alone in the backfield as senior Donnell Kirkwood and junior Rodrick Williams return. Williams averaged 5.5 yards per carry a year ago. In addition, a pair of freshman look to make noise. The nation’s seventh-ranked running back in the 2014 class, Jeff Jones, and redshirt freshman, Berkley Edwards (Braylon’s brother), join the crowded group, though Jones may not be academically eligible this fall. Edwards, at 5’9″, 190, provides a change of pace to Cobb and Williams.

With Nelson gone, the man who supplanted him by the end of 2013 looks to grab the reigns. Redshirt sophomore Mitch Leidner threw just 78 passes for 619 yards and three touchdowns last season, about a third of that came in the bowl game in which he completed 11-of-22 for 205 yards and two scores. He also saw extensive action against Michigan, completing 14-of-21 for 145 yards, a touchdown, and an interception. He was much more of a running quarterback last season, rushing 102 times for 407 yards and seven scores.

The receiving corps is young, led by tight end Maxx Williams, Drew’s second-best tight end in the conference this fall, who caught 25 passes for 417 yards and five touchdowns a year ago. Last year’s leading wide receiver, Derrick Engel, is gone, but sophomores Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones and senior Isaac Fruechte will need to step up. The three will need to improve on last season’s combined total of just 38 receptions for 570 yards and one touchdown. The Gophers do have 6’3″, 190-pound freshman Melvin Holland coming in who could see some early playing time.

Experience isn’t an issue with the offensive line. Of the nine linemen that started a game last season, seven return, and those seven started a combined 55 games in 2013 and 124 in their careers. Left guard Zac Epping is the most experienced of the bunch, having started 34 games over the last three years. While none of Minnesota’s linemen rank among the Big Ten’s best, and the line as a whole won’t be the best, it should be

Defense

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
DE Theiren Cockran 6’6″, 255 30 tackles, 10.0 TFL, 7.5 sacks
DT Cameron Botticelli 6’5″, 281 23 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.0 sacks
DT Scott Ekpe 6’4″, 293 19 tackles, 1.0 TFL
DE Michael Amaefula 6’2″, 249 19 tackles, 1.0 TFL
OLB De’Vondre Campbell 6’5″, 238 41 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1 FF
MLB Damien Wilson 6’2″, 249 78 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1 sack
OLB Jack Lynn 6’3″, 238 5 tackles, 1.0 TFL
CB Eric Murray 6’0″, 195 52 tackles, 1 TFL, 10 PBU, 1 FR
CB Derrick Wells 6’0″, 201 17 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU
FS Cedric Thompson 6’0″, 208 79 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 2 FR
SS Antonio Johnson 6’0″, 209 69 tackles, 1 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT

Minnesota’s defense was a halfway decent unit last season, ranking fourth in the Big Ten and 25th nationally in scoring defense (22.2 points per game), sixth in the Big Ten and 43rd nationally in total defense (373.2 yards per game), and fifth in the Big Ten and 35th nationally in pass defense (215.1 yards per game). The Gophers also led the Big Ten and ranked 15th nationally in red zone defense, allowing opponents to score just 74 percent of the time. With seven starters returning, that’s a good defense to build on.

Theiren Cockran had the third-most sacks in the Big Ten last season (Kevin Tanaka, AP)

Theiren Cockran had the third-most sacks in the Big Ten last season (Kevin Tanaka, AP)

However, the main loss is a big one in nose tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, who was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in the second round of the NFL Draft. He led Minnesota with 13 tackles-for-loss in 2013 and also recorded two sacks. Defensive tackle Roland Johnson, who added 5.5 tackles-for-loss, has also departed, leaving a big hole in the middle of the defense. Senior Cameron Botticelli is a lock to start at one position after recording 5.5 tackles-for-loss and one sack a year ago, while junior Scott Ekpe should get the nod at nose tackle.

Both defensive ends return, most notably junior Theiren Cockran, who led the Gophers and ranked third in the conference with 7.5 sacks in 2013. The other is senior Michael Amaefula, who had 19 tackles and one for loss while starting all 13 games.

Two of the top three linebackers are gone, but middle linebacker, senior Damien Wilson, returns. He was Minnesota’s second-leading tackler last season with 78, and had the third-most tackles-for-loss with 5.5. Junior De’Vondre Campbell is in line to start at weakside after starting three games last season. The SAM linebacker will likely be redshirt sophomore Jack Lynn, who played in just three games and notched five tackles a year ago.

The strength of Minnesota’s defense this fall should be its secondary, despite the loss of cornerback Brock Vereen, who was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the fourth round. The other starting corner from last season, Eric Murray, led the team with 10 pass breakups, which ranked sixth in the Big Ten. Just a junior this fall, Murray could be poised for a breakout year. On the other side will be a battle between a pair of players who suffered injuries last season, junior Briean Boddy-Calhoun, who tore his ACL in Week 2, and senior Derrick Wells, who was hampered most of the season with a shoulder injury.

Both safeties are back, senior Cedric Thompson and junior Antonio Johnson. Thompson led the team with 79 tackles last season while picking off one pass and recovering two fumbles. Johnson was fourth with 69 tackles and notched half a sack and one pick. Junior Damarius Travis also has experience, having started two games last season and recording 28 tackles and four pass breakups.

Special Teams

Projected Starters
Position Name, Yr. Ht, Wt 2013 Stats
PK Ryan Santoso 6’6″, 245
P Peter Mortell 6’2″, 192 43.3 avg, 21 in-20
KR Marcus Jones 5’8″, 173 25 ret, 24.9 avg., 1 TD
PR Marcus Jones 5’8″, 173 11 ret, 10.5 avg., 1 TD

Kill has to replace kicker Chris Hawthorne, who made 14-of-18 field goals. The leading candidate is redshirt freshman Ryan Santoso, who was the seventh-best kicker in the 2013 class per ESPN. Punter Peter Mortell is a nice weapon to have back after ranking third in the Big Ten with a 43.3-yard average last season. The former walk-on earned a scholarship following that performance. Defensive back Marcus Jones and safety Antonio Johnson will handle the return duties. Jones ranked sixth in the Big Ten in kick returns last season, averaging 24.9 yards per return.

Outlook

Kill has built the team with the kind of strengths that work in the Big Ten — a good running game and stout defense — but he’ll be hard-pressed to improve on last year’s record. The move to the Big Ten West means battling with Nebraska, Wisconsin, and Iowa for the division title, two of which they lost to last season. But just how good this team is will depend on how Leidner develops as a passer and whether he can get production out of his unproven receiving corps. The first two months of the season are where the Gophers will have to rack up wins because if not, once November hits, they might need to steal one or two to become bowl eligible.

What it means for Michigan

Not to overlook Utah, but Michigan should be either 4-0 or 3-1 heading into the start of conference play, depending on the outcome of the Notre Dame game, and Minnesota very well could be as well. That didn’t mean much for the Gophers last season, as they cruised through non-conference play before losing to Iowa 23-7 and then Michigan 42-13. In all fairness, they were playing with heavy hearts after Kill suffered a seizure and couldn’t travel with the team to Ann Arbor, leaving defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys to fill in. Maybe that affected the team’s performance, or maybe not, but hopefully Kill will be able to make the trip this season. Michigan has owned the series, winning the last six and 22 of the last 23, and this shouldn’t be any different.