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With beefed-up defense, Golden Gophers ready to go Bowl-ing

Something about the dramatic defensive improvement with the University of Minnesota football team sounded familiar. And once someone connected the dots for him, first-year Gophers defensive coordinator Ted Roof smiled knowingly.

Five years ago, then Vikings head coach Mike Tice promoted his old high-school coach, George O’Leary, from defensive line assistant to defensive coordinator. Almost overnight, the Vikings defense, which ranked next to last in the NFL in turnover margin in 2002, morphed into a takeaway machine. Through a 6-0 start, the Vikings led the league with 16 interceptions (matching their season total from the year before) and racked up 13 more takeaways than turnovers, a remarkable improvement that O’Leary’s players credited him for.

The success didn’t last; the Vikings won only three more games to finish 9-7.  But Roof took a similar approach with the 6-1 Gophers, who play at 2-5 Purdue on Saturday. The worst-ranked defense in Division 1-A last year, Minnesota this year has 20 takeaways and are tied for third-best in the nation — a big reason why the 25th-ranked Gophers are back in the national polls for the first time since 2005.

Some good football minds think alike for a reason. From 1999 to 2001, Roof was O’Leary’s defensive coordinator at Georgia Tech. 

Who’s copying whom?
So is Roof running O’Leary’s defense? Or was O’Leary, now the head coach at Central Florida, running Roof’s?

“Nobody invents any new defenses,” Roof said after practice earlier this week. “If there’s something that works and we see it on tape, nobody’s above trying to use that for our own team.

“A lot of people do what we do. It’s nothing unique. I’m proud of the way the kids have bought in and understood the importance of turnover battle. That’s a significant factor.”

Anyone who watched the Gophers fritter away games in the fourth quarter under Glen Mason, and again in Tim Brewster’s 1-11 debut, knows how a bad defense beats itself. The anti-Mason crowd blamed one-sided recruiting, poor coaching and even poorer tackling technique. Lack of continuity didn’t help; Roof is the Gophers’ fourth defensive coordinator in five years.

Coaches at every level know the two remedies for hiding defensive deficiencies — forcing turnovers, and pressuring the passer. The former is a quicker and easier fix. But first, Roof had to put the right people in the right places.

 When he arrived at the U, Roof asked a graduate assistant to make 10- to 12-play highlight tapes of every defensive player. Once Roof knew each player’s strengths, he deployed them to take advantage of those strengths. It sounds simple. It’s common sense. Yet you’d be surprised how many coaches can’t do this.

“I wanted to focus on and build on the positives, look at what we could do, not what we couldn’t do,” Roof said. “It’s been well documented what we couldn’t do. Everyone knows what we can’t do. I just wanted to focus on what we can do and build off of it.”

Roof also inherited a healthy Willie VanDeSteeg, the defensive end who played one-handed all last season after breaking a bone in his right wrist. “I couldn’t grab anybody, I couldn’t hold on to anything,” said VanDeSteeg, who eventually needed surgery. “It was just a tough deal. I was doing everything I could to help, but it was a tough position to be in.”

For defense, it’s drill, baby, drill
In practice, Roof emphasized forcing turnovers. “We do takeaway drills, practice ripping the ball out, practice catching the ball, scoop and score,” said outside linebacker Simoni Lawrence. “We practice a lot of things like that — breaking on the ball, catching the ball with your hands. Things the offense would do, we practice on defense as well.”

Added Roof: “I think our players understand we’re not just doing drills to take up time. There’s a lot of relevance to them.”

VanDeSteeg thought Roof was onto something when the annual spring game didn’t turn into the usual defensive fiasco. “Our offenses used to kind of dominate us when we scrimmaged,” VanDeSteeg said. “They could always figure out the weaknesses in our defense.

“During the spring game, I kind of saw a turnaround. Our defense was doing a lot of good things. We were making big plays, getting them turning the ball over. It was exciting to see. That was the big turnaround for me.”

Moving Lee Campbell from defensive end to middle linebacker, his original position, just before the season started strengthened the run defense. And VanDeSteeg turned into a disrupter. With five sacks in his last two games, VanDeSteeg ranks second in the conference in sacks (6 1/2) and fourth in tackles for losses (11).

“You go against some of these bigger guys, it’s tough with only one arm,” he said. “This year, with two arms, it’s just been awesome. I can play to the speed I like to play at.”

Now, Roof isn’t a miracle worker. The Gophers still rank last among Big Ten teams in pass defense, which is troublesome, and ninth in overall defense.

The Gophers haven’t won against Purdue in West Lafayette since 1990. And no one knows if the Gophers are strong enough to handle the closing schedule of trophy games — Michigan here, at Wisconsin, and then Iowa at home.  

Brewster claimed his players are focused only on Purdue. But VanDeSteeg, a senior, has bigger ideas.

“Getting bowl eligible last week was big for us,” he said. “We don’t want to go back to the Insight Bowl. We don’t want to go back to the Motor City Bowl. We want to go to a good bowl. And obviously, we have a good chance to make some things happen.”

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