Minnesota CBs Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Eric Murray strive to be Big Ten's best

In the wake of Minnesota’s regular-season-ending loss to Wisconsin this past November, the Golden Gophers, at their annual team banquet, named Briean Boddy-Calhoun as a co-captain for 2015.

It was a formality, really.

“Just a title,” Boddy-Calhoun said this week as Minnesota opened spring practice.

A rising senior from Wilmington, Delaware, Boddy-Calhoun and fellow cornerback and classmate Eric Murray fill leadership roles for Minnesota in the secondary, across the defensive unit and the entire team. They stand out for their similar effectiveness and their differences, complementing each other well -- Boddy-Calhoun as the outspoken motivator and Murray as a quiet, steadying force.

It works for Minnesota, which relied on their consistency last season to rank fourth in the Big Ten in both passing yardage allowed per game and per attempt. And they return as arguably the top pair of cornerbacks in the league. They’re a driving force behind the rise of Minnesota, which has posted consecutive eight-win seasons for the second time in more than 50 years

"They’re great workers," Minnesota secondary coach Jay Sawvel said. "It's proven by video. It’s proven by how they play. Any time that your best players are your best workers and your best practice players, best meeting-preparation people, well, then it makes things a lot better.”

Boddy-Calhoun, defending the field, snagged a team-high five interceptions last season. Murray, as the boundary corner, ranked fourth in tackles with 69.

“He’s going to be in your face,” Boddy-Calhoun said. “He’s going to press you every play, where I’m more of a finesse corner. I cover a little more ground. I have good feet, good hips and I can cover those shifty guys. I play off a little bit."

The Gophers played on New Year’s Day last season for the time since 1962, losing 33-17 to Missouri in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. The experience left a sour taste.

“In my mind,” Boddy-Calhoun said, “we can hang with the best people out there.”

Murray came to Minnesota from Milwaukee and played a reserve role as a true freshman in 2012. He started every game over the past two seasons.

For Boddy-Calhoun, the route was more circuitous. After a year in junior college, he played primarily on special teams in 2012. Two years ago, he recorded his first interception in the opener against UNLV, returning it 89 yards for a touchdown.

But in Week 2 of the 2013 season against New Mexico State, Boddy-Calhoun went down with a season-ending knee injury. He received a medical redshirt, paving the road for his return in 2015 after a breakout junior season.

“It was a test that I needed to take,” Boddy-Calhoun said. “Ultimately, it made me a better person and a better player.”

His knack for big plays last season gained Boddy-Calhoun a spot on the All-Big Ten first team, as selected by the media; Murray earned second-team recognition from the coaches.

In the Gophers’ November visit to Nebraska, Boddy-Calhoun preserved a 28-24 victory by stripping receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El inside the 5-yard line with 1:19 to play after a catch that would have been negated by penalty.

His nose for the ball no longer surprises Sawvel.

“Sometimes you’ll see something happen with Briean, and you’ll go, ‘Well, that was lucky. Look at that. How did that happen?’” said Sawvel, entering his 17th season as a full-time coach of defensive backs. “But when you see it over and over, it’s not luck. That’s what he does. I don’t know how to explain it. I’ve never really had a player like it.

“He just has a magical way. The ball goes to him in the weirdest ways possible sometimes."

On a smaller scale -- Boddy-Calhoun is 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds -- he plays with a presence Sawvel likens to Richard Sherman, the Seattle Seahawks' All-Pro corner.

“You talk about a guy who would be fabulous as a coach,” Sawvel said. “He needs to be a coach when he gets done playing.”

As for Murray?

“Eric has this little menacing stare,” Sawvel said. “It’s a good thing. You know when he means business. And he’s talented enough that when he means business, he can control people very well.”

With senior safeties Damarius Travis and Antonio Johnson in place to start alongside Boddy-Calhoun and Murray, the Gophers are set in the secondary.

Their 2015 recruiting class included seven defensive backs. The presence of established veterans helped Minnesota land the latest signees, Sawvel said.

“There’s a culture in place,” the coach said. “It was a big selling point.”

The Gophers open in September at home with TCU, likely to rank near the top of preseason polls. TCU beat Minnesota 30-7 last year, a black mark for the Big Ten in a rough opening month of the 2014 season.

Boddy-Calhoun said the Gophers are eyeing the rematch but remain more focused inward. The cornerbacks are intent on leaving their mark as the Big Ten’s best.

“That’s something we’re fighting for,” Boddy-Calhoun said, “something we want to show everyone. It’s something that we strongly believe. But we know that title doesn’t come by looking good or playing good for one season. We know it can only come with work.”