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Safety first for UMD pass defense

Cody Eich wanted to play wide receiver coming out of high school in Farmington, Minn., in 2007, but everywhere he went, coaches envisioned him as a college safety.

Except one: Minnesota Duluth.

Eich's time on offense at UMD was brief, however, and he and Cameron Harper have since developed into one of the best safety tandems in NCAA Division II, carrying on a Bulldogs' tradition at the position.

"We've been fortunate to have guys who have played a lot of football at that position," UMD coach Bob Nielson said. "Both Cody and Cameron have good instincts, and in our system we put a lot of pressure on the safeties to kind of be the quarterbacks of the defense, making calls and adjustments, so we rely on those two a lot."

They will need to come through again on Saturday as UMD plays Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference rival Winona State.

The Warriors (3-2 overall, 3-1 NSIC) are second in the league in total offense (395.6 ypg) and scoring (33.8 ppg) and feature NSIC South Division Preseason Offensive Player of the Year Rayon Simmons. The junior running back has rushed 71 times for 515 yards and six touchdowns this season after leading the league with 1,252 rushing yards in 2010.

Winona State beat then-No. 9 St. Cloud State, 29-16, on Sept. 17 and had a school-record 677 yards in a 72-31 rout of Upper Iowa two weeks ago before a 24-14 setback at Minnesota State-Mankato last week.

UMD, meanwhile, is coming off a game in which the Bulldogs gave up 279 passing yards to Minnesota State-Moorhead but still won 49-21. The 279 passing yards are the most UMD has given up through the air since yielding 303 yards to Central Washington in last year's season-opener.

"Moorhead had some good skill guys, and breakdowns in coverage are going to happen," Harper said. "The key is minimizing those."

Tyler Yelk, a former UMD free safety who had a school-record 323 tackles from 2005-08, is now UMD's defensive backs coach. Yelk and his counterpart, Jim Johnson, were four-year starters who formed the backbone of UMD's defense during the Bulldogs' first national championship run of 2008.

"It was really good my first year in college to learn from the best," Harper said. "And I'm continuing to learn from Tyler."

Where Johnson was a 225-pound bruiser, Eich and Harper are more in the mold of Yelk, at about 6-foot-1, 205 pounds.

Safeties get a lot of action in the run game in UMD's 3-4 defense, and both Eich and Harper have been among the team's tackle leaders. They also get tackles as standouts on special teams.

Harper, a junior from Blaine, Minn., is in his second season as a starter and was second on the team with 92 tackles last season, earning All-NSIC North Division first-team honors. He also had a team-high five interceptions.

Eich, a senior from Farmington, Minn., is in his third season as a starter and had 76 tackles last season. He was named to the All-NSIC North Division first team and was named to Don Hansen's Football Gazette All-American first team. Eich had four interceptions, including one he returned 20 yards to help set up David Nadeau's game-winning field in last year's national title game, showing offensive-like skill on the play.

"It's not that defensive backs don't have hands," Eich said, taking a jab at his offensive counterparts, "but it's that we like to hit."

Eich never played safety in high school but couldn't be happier with how his UMD career has worked out. Switching to safety helped him get on the field faster.

Eich said offensive coordinator Curt Wiese helped steer him to the defensive side of the ball.

When asked why, Eich smiled and said, "I don't know. You'll have to ask Coach Wiese."