Rush the quarterback!

In the fifth of ten factors of success the Minnesota Gophers football team must meet in order to turn the program around, I highlight the Gophers ability, or lack thereof, to rush the opposing quarterback.

Now, I personally guarantee Minnesota’s defense will get to the quarterback more times than last year. In 2010, the Gophers recorded eight sacks in 12 games. 41 players in college football earned more than eight sacks by themselveslast year. Jewhan Edwards, who is no longer with the team, led the team with three sacks.

This year, to help improve the Gopher’s pass rush, head coach Jerry Kill is trashing former head coach Tim Brewster’s individually-focused gap coverage defense. He is replacing it with a proven, much more aggressive team-based defense. Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys are looking to start fast, athletic pass rushers who can deliver consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Let’s take a closer look at Minnesota’s notable pass rushers for the 2011 season:

LINEBACKERS:

  • Gary Tinsley-Senior. 6-foot-1, 237 lbs. Although he was the leading tackler for Minnesota with 90 tackles in 2010, Tinsley could see diminished playing time this fall due to the talent of the team’s other linebackers. He was also hindered by an ankle injury in spring practices. Gophersports.com reported Tinsley was named to Chris Steele’s Preseason All-Big Tenthird team. He was also named by ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg as a candidate to break 100 tackles this season. He has incredible tackling skills, but his speed delegates him to a middle linebacker role, which doesn’t bode well with what Kill is trying to accomplish on defense.  
  • Mike Rallis-Junior. 6-foot-2, 236 lbs. Another Rittenberg candidate to break 100 tackles, Rallis is a versatile defender. The former safety tallied 37 tackles in six games as a starter last year, including six tackles for loss and three interceptions. The Edina, MN has a positive influence both on and off the field. Rallis is poised for a big season.     
  • Brendan Beal-Sophomore. 6-foot-3, 245 lbs. The Florida transfer will challenge Tinsley for playing time at middle linebacker. The Bangor, Pennsylvania native is a tough, powerful linebacker who fits well into Kill’s pass rushing philosophy. Beal’s quickness, size, and speed will make him a big threat on the defensive side of the ball for the Gophers.      
  • Keanon Cooper-Junior. 6-foot-0, 217 lbs. Amazingly versatile and athletic. Cooper racked up 68 tackles in ten starts last year, but only managed 0.5 sacks. The Dallas, TX native fits the mold for what Claeys is looking for out of a pass rusher, but he must be more productive in 2011. Cooper played well through spring practices and seen action in every game he has played at Minnesota. Although he is undersized, he is the quickest Minnesota linebacker. Look for him to be the Gopher’s most effective pass rusher this fall.     

DEFENSIVE LINE:

  • Ra’Shede Hageman-Sophomore. 6-foot-6, 302 lbs. Believe it or not, Hageman was recruited as a tight end. Coming out of high school, the Minneapolis native was the number one ranked tight end prospect in the country by recruiting expert Tom Lemming. Hageman, a former basketball standout, did an excellent job of knocking passes down at the line of scrimmage in spring practices and earned a spot on the defensive line. The massive-bodied tackle is incredibly mobile for his size and his long arms will make it difficult for opposing quarterbacks to find a clear throwing lane.  
  • D.L. Wilhite-Junior. 6-foot-3. 237 lbs. Needs to rebound after a very disappointing 2010. Wilhite collected only 14 tackles in eight starts last year, including just one sack. Former running back who has to prove his explosiveness can translate to the defensive side of the ball.   
  • Kendall Gregory-McGhee-Sophomore. 6-foot-5, 253 lbs. Recorded one sack in his only start last year. Raw, versatile prospect who has the size to play the position on Sundays. Must develop a consistent rapport at the end position and become a steady threat for opposing quarterbacks. The former wide-out must also show he can be an every-down end.
  • Brandon Kirksey-Senior. 6-foot-2, 299 lbs. Was a captain as a junior last year, but was suspended due to actions in the locker room after the loss to Ohio State. Although he was limited by injuries last year, Kirksey needs to improve his production both on and off the field. 
  • Anthony Jacobs-Senior. 6-foot-2, 295 lbs. Solid defensive lineman who tallied 41 tackles in ten starts last year. He also recorded two sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. Versatile defender. Can play at end or tackle. Very mobile and powerful for his size. Jacobs will have a very big year provided the lineman around him produce.   

These players MUST capitalize on Kill and Claey’s defensive philosophy. The main objective of Kill’s and Claey’s defense is to pressure the opposing quarterback. If Minnesota’s defense can reliably accomplish this goal, it will drastically improve college football’s 2010 worst-ranked pass rush.

There’s no question the coaching staff will put the best pass rushers out there, regardless of experience or class. Considering the new schemes Kill and Claeys are implementing to the defense and the athleticism of the Gophers, there’s no reason NOT to believe the Gophers will be much improved in this department in 2011. Let’s face it, it can’t get any worse.

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