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Minnesota Golden Gophers five best defensive players in 2014

Tracy Claeys has the Minnesota Golden Gophers trending upward on defense.
Photo by Leon Halip

The Minnesota Golden Gophers defense was loaded with questions entering the 2013 season, but that unit led the team to an 8-5 record. The defense forced turnovers and put points on the board.

The Gophers defense finished fourth in the Big Ten Conference in scoring defense allowing 22.2 points per game last season. They also finished sixth in the conference in yards allowed per game with 373.2. The Gophers should rely less on their defense next season, but still needs to build on last season’s success.

The Gophers lose a big part of their defense to graduation, but several key players are returning. Here are the five best players on the Gophers defense.

No. 1 - LB Damien Wilson
No. 1 - LB Damien Wilson Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

No. 1 - LB Damien Wilson

Wilson took over as the starting middle linebacker last season after transferring from Jones County Community College. Wilson plays downhill and looks for contact. He is a prototypical run-stuffing middle linebacker.

The 6-foot-2-inch, 254-pound senior finished last season with 78 total tackles (second on the team), 5.5 tackles for a loss (tied for third), one sack and one quarterback hurry.

No. 2 - CB Eric Murray
No. 2 - CB Eric Murray Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

No. 2 - CB Eric Murray

Murray became the Gophers’ shutdown corner from Day 1 last season. He was a relatively unknown prospect that had more tape as a running back than at defensive back for Riverside University High School in Milwaukee, Wisc. The Gophers saw something they liked about him and it has been gold. He effectively shut down several of the league’s best receivers last season.

The 6-foot, 194-pound junior finished last season with 52 total tackles (fourth among returning players), one tackle for a loss, 10 pass break ups (first on the team), 10 passes defensed and one fumble recovery.

No. 3 - DE Theiren Cockran
No. 3 - DE Theiren Cockran Mark A. Cunningham/Getty Images

No. 3 - DE Theiren Cockran

Cockran emerged as one of the top pass rushers in the Big Ten last season. He was a tall, thin, raw prospect from Homestead High School in Homestead, Fla. when he arrived in Minnesota. Head coach Jerry Kill raved about his athleticism and potential after he redshirted in 2011. He is a speed rusher with the frame to add more good bulk.

The 6-foot-6-inch, 238-pounf redshirt junior finished last season with 30 total tackles (sixth among returning players), 10 tackles for a loss (second on the team and first among returning players), 7.5 sacks (led the team), two pass breakups, two passes defensed, three quarterback hurries (led the team), one fumble recovery and four forced fumbles (led the team).

No. 4 - S Cedric Thompson
No. 4 - S Cedric Thompson Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

No. 4 - S Cedric Thompson

Thompson led the Gophers in tackles last season. He was a late signee to the Gophers class of 2011 from Calipatria High School in Calipatria, Calif. He is another under-the-radar prospect the Gophers coaching staff found from a small high school. He is a thick, in-the-box type of safety that excels in run support.

The 5-foot-10-inch, 211-pound senior finished last season with 79 total tackles (led the team), two tackles for a loss, one interception, one pass defensed, two fumble recoveries (tied for the team lead) and one forced fumble.

No. 5 - DB Derrick Wells
No. 5 - DB Derrick Wells Eric Francis/Getty Images

No. 5 - DB Derrick Wells

Wells suffered through an injury-filled 2013 season. He received national recognition early in the 2012 season with a pair of interceptions in the season opener. He began battling injuries shortly thereafter. He has yet to look fully recovered since. He still possesses the length, speed, physicality and toughness to excel at either defensive back position.

The 6-foot, 206-pound senior finished last season with 17 total tackles, one tackle for a loss, one interception, three pass breakups (tied for third among returning players), four passes defensed (tied for third among returning players) and one fumble recovery.