Gophers expect defense to be much improved

Updated: August 6, 2003, 3:23 PM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- A Gophers defense that was inexperienced and undersized in the Big Ten last season is looking like a much bigger and more experienced unit as Minnesota's season gets underway.

The defense struggled in the final four Big Ten games last season but rebounded with a superb performance in a win over Arkansas in the Music City Bowl. And with the start of fall practice Wednesday, the Gophers hoped to erase any doubt about whether the defense can hold up against the conference's best teams.

"If you look at last year, it was a young defense," coach Glen Mason said. "It was one of those where going in, you think, 'Are they going to be able to hold up?' ... I expect us to be better."

Eight starters return from a defense that gave up an average of 42 points and 303 rushing yards in a four-game losing streak that ended the Big Ten season, then held Arkansas to 80 yards on the ground while forcing four turnovers in a 29-14 win.

"The fact of the matter is they probably weren't as bad as one might expect from the four games," Mason said. "And we probably weren't as good as we played against Arkansas."

The Gophers believe both the good and the bad provided valuable lessons that will serve as motivation this season.

"The attitude was always there," defensive coordinator Greg Hudson said. "They will be a better defense when they want to be. Now, you can help them make decisions. But when they decide it, it will happen."

The players say Hudson, who begins his first full season as coordinator after taking over before the Music City Bowl, is a perfect fit. He is quick to downplay his influence, saying he kept the same schemes and terminology in place. But his players believe Hudson's energy and confidence in them creates an aggressive attitude that maximizes their ability.

"Players hate to be on their heels," defensive tackle Darrell Reid said. "Coach Hudson brings an attacking style. When you have a coach like that, who lets you get after it more, it definitely is a lot of fun."

Hudson demands three things of his players: Stop the run, create more turnovers and become the best tackling team in the Big Ten. Stopping the run undeniably is his No. 1 priority.

"We want to destroy the run. Period," Hudson said. "That has to be something we can hang our hat on above anything else. If we do that, we will always have a chance to win."

Minnesota gave up more than 1,000 yards rushing in their final three Big Ten games, including a whopping 416 to Wisconsin. The Gophers redeemed themselves against Arkansas, but it didn't completely rinse away the bad taste.

Over the summer, several linemen added size and strength through an intense weight-training regimen designed to help them hold up through a 12-game season. The projected starting line now averages 276 pounds, anchored by 315-pound nose tackle Anthony Montgomery.

"You don't have that feeling that we're going to get pushed around," Hudson said.

Hudson also said he likes the leadership linebacker Ben West and safety Eli Ward provide in the middle.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

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