Gophers' D-line to turn up the heat this fall

Tracy Claeys hasn't spent much time watching tape or reviewing stats from Minnesota's 2010 season.

The Gophers' new defensive coordinator is focused on the future, and he wants his players to feel the same way.

"I don’t want to judge them on the past," Claeys said. "I'd like everybody to have a fresh start when we get going here."

But two Gophers' numbers from 2010 caught Claeys' eye. He couldn't ignore them.

  • Minnesota's opponents converted 46.6 percent of their third-down opportunities last fall. The Gophers finished last in the Big Ten and 107th nationally in third-down defense.

  • Minnesota recorded only nine sacks, last in the Big Ten and tied with New Mexico State for last nationally.

Claeys made it clear when he met with his new players: those two trends need to change immediately.

"I told the kids, ‘We’ve got to play better on third down and we’ve got to get the ball out of the quarterback’s hands quicker or get him sacked,'" Claeys said. "Those are the two things this spring that we’re really going to emphasize."

Claeys is the right coach to do the emphasizing. Often accused of being too aggressive, Claeys likes to turn his defensive linemen loose.

His defenses ranked 33rd, 34th and 32nd nationally in tackles for loss in his three seasons on Jerry Kill's staff at Northern Illinois. The Huskies also ranked 32nd nationally in third-down defense last season, allowing 36.8 percent conversions.

"I like to let the defensive line kids go and play and be aggressive," he said. "That’ll be a change."

Claeys doesn't inherit much as far as the pass rush.

Jewhan Edwards, who led Minnesota who only three sacks in 2010, is no longer with the program. The Gophers boast some veteran linemen such as Anthony Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey -- D.L. Wilhite also has a year of starting under his belt -- but the team has lacked a true pass-rusher since Willie VanDeSteeg in 2008.

Claeys' aggressive approach with the down linemen will require the linebackers to fit plays a little differently.

"I’m really big on trying to find out what kids do best and then put them in a position to do those things and try not to ask somebody to do things that they can’t do," he said. "That is what, to me, spring is all about. If we can come out of spring ball with our personnel and we know what they do well and what they struggle with, I’ll feel really good going into the fall."