Two seasons ago, Michigan State had a secondary so good it dubbed itself the “No Fly Zone.”
Well, the conference has a new elite secondary this season, and it's Minnesota’s defensive backs who might want to look into transferring the trademark on the whole “No Fly Zone” thing.
With an experienced veteran at every position, the quartet of Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Antonio Johnson, Eric Murray and Damarius Travis — all seniors — are going to be shutting down opposing pass defenses this season. Heck, they did it last season.
In 2014, the Gophers ranked fourth in the Big Ten in pass defense, limiting opponents to 193.5 passing yards per game. That mark was good enough to place Minnesota in the top 20 in the FBS in stopping opposing QBs from doing much damage.
The Gophers grabbed 15 interceptions, with Boddy-Calhoun’s five leading the way. Boddy-Calhoun was named to the All-Big Ten First Team.
With four seniors returning to a secondary that did such a great job last season, it’s easy to see why this is expected to be one of the better units in the Big Ten.
“They all have experience. They're all very intelligent, very athletic. I feel like we have as good a secondary as anybody,” head coach Jerry Kill said last month during Big Ten Media Days. “And they're just great kids, a lot of camaraderie. But the biggest thing is they can compete. And you look at what Michigan State's secondary has been over the last few seasons with coach (Mark) Dantonio. And you look at that as a team … that's the type of secondary you want because if you can line up with corners and they can play man to man defense, then you can do about anything you want on defense. So that's a pretty good model when we came in and looked at, and we feel like we've done a good job in that area.”
This talented defensive back corps is just one of the many examples of the program Kill has built with lightning quickness in the Twin Cities. When he arrived, the Gophers were coming off a 3-9 season. His first year again saw Minnesota go 3-9, but by the next season he had the Gophers at six wins and in a bowl game. The past two seasons have each featured eight wins, just two of 19 eight-win seasons in program history. And now Kill & Co. have their sights on a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game.
And much of that rapid rise is thanks to the defense that Kill and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys have built. The Minnesota offense has been underwhelming for the most part during the Kill Era, despite cranking out a few NFL players, such as David Cobb and Maxx Williams just this past season. But the defense has been very good, ranking sixth in the league in scoring defense last season and fourth the season prior.
Obviously the secondary has been a big part of that.
“We focused everything on defense when I got the job because Minnesota, my understanding is, struggled on defense. And we won on defense everywhere we've been, then we move the offense along,” Kill said last week at his preseason press conference. “But we recruited on defense for a purpose, and so we feel like we've built a pretty good defense.”