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Despite key losses, Claeys still expects big things from Gophers D

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Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys expects his team's defense to be better this season, but improving the unit that led Minnesota to another 8-win season last year won't be easy.

The first challenge will be the Gophers' schedule, which includes a season-opening matchup with one the country's toughest offenses, TCU, and later will pit Minnesota against defending national champions Ohio State.

The Gophers also have the challenge of facing those top-ranked opponents after the departure of three key members of the middle of their defense – defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli, linebacker Damien Wilson and safety Cedric Thompson.

But that's not an excuse for Claeys, who said Wednesday that he'll be disappointed if they don't take another step forward defensively this year.

They'll be tested right out of the gate against a tough TCU squad. Still, Claeys is confident the defense will be able to keep them in it.

Five turnovers and a short field hurt the Gophers against the Horned Frogs last season in what turned out to be a 30-7 loss. But all of TCU's touchdown drives started within the Gophers' 40-yard line.

"I feel more comfortable this year just because we're older, we've been in that situation," Claeys told the Star Tribune. "So that's all I'll tell them is, 'You've got to be sharp and ready to go. If you're not, it's going to be a heck of a long night. But if we are, if we're sharp and on our game, I expect us to have a chance to win in the fourth quarter."

New faces need to step up

In order for the Gophers to be better defensively, they are going to need a few key players to step up.

At linebacker sophomore Everett Williams is battling with junior college transfer Cody Poock to replace Wilson in the middle. According to the Pioneer Press, Claeys hasn't picked a starter yet, but said both are performing well.

The Gophers appear to be more settled at the other spots. At defensive tackle, now that Scott Epke is healthy he will take over for Botticelli. Epke tore his ACL in his only start last season.

The team will look to Antonio Johnson and Damarius Travis to start at safety. The duo split time last season starting opposite Thompson.

It's that experience gives the Gophers coaching staff hope this could be Minnesota's best defense under coach Jerry Kill.

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