‘Younger, deeper’ Gophers defense prepares for unprecedented challenges in 2020
MINNEAPOLIS — Seven defensive starters to replace, including a quartet of NFLers. A discombobulated offseason, followed by a truncated preseason and the gauntlet of an all-Big Ten, no-weeks-off schedule. Doubts about whether the Minnesota defense can be anything close to last year’s game-changing group.
Ask Golden Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, and he’ll tell you these are all good problems to have.
“I think that’s the new reality,” Rossi told the Gopher Sports Network back in May. “I think that’s the type of position we want to be in. We want to be the type of program that we’re losing guys every year or two to the NFL.
“It creates opportunity for younger guys. It’s something we can sell in recruiting that ‘hey, this is a program that’s not only recruiting well but developing well and putting guys to the next level.’”
So much has transpired and changed since Rossi sat in his home office, COVID beard in full swing, and said those words over Zoom. Not only has a stud from each level of the defense moved on to an NFL career, but the 2020 season itself has been questioned then canceled then reinstated and — deep breath — all of a sudden Minnesota’s opening at home against Michigan on Saturday night with no fans in the stands and essentially 5 weeks of training camp in the rearview.
A challenge? Absolutely. But equally, an opportunity.
“We might be younger,” head coach P.J. Fleck said this fall, “but I think we’re deeper. And I think that’s critical. Because sometimes … you’ve got really good players in front of you. And you see a potential up to a certain point, because the person in front of you is playing all the time. Well, sometimes that player’s got to be able to move on for you to be able to really kind of take the top off the jar, and for the grasshopper to jump out of the jar and go to places they’ve never gone before.”
Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is now earning NFL rookie of the month accolades with the Buccaneers. Linebacker Kamal Martin was reportedly in line for a starting job with the Packers before undergoing knee surgery. End Carter Coughlin and defensive back Chris Williamson are both New York Giants now.
Those four led a Minnesota unit that ranked 10th in FBS in total defense and 26th in ESPN’s SP+ analytics. Rossi’s promotion to defensive coordinator midway through the 2018 season has been one of the lynchpins in the Gophers’ rise to B1G West contender.
Rossi knew this was coming. If you look at the Gophers’ 2019 participation charts, you’ll see at least a handful of game reps for current players.
That was by design.
“We have a lot of guys in our core group that were in rotations last year, that started games,” Rossi said. “We played 8-10 guys up front in almost every game. No. 1, it keeps us fresh and healthy but No. 2, when you’ve got guys who do move on, you’ve got guys who have played in games.”
Said Fleck: “Coach Rossi and the staff are doing an amazing job of getting our guys ready to play. It’s fun to watch him. You got ones, you got twos, you got threes, which we haven’t had here before. But you can see the youth, but the youth is incredibly talented, and talented youth is the best youth.
“We’re excited about our defense, but we’ve got a long way to go.”
So far this year, Mike linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin has been the heart and soul. He’s the front seven’s top returning tackler and hopes to become the next great linebacker to come out of Dinkytown.
“He’s usually a step ahead of everybody else,” Fleck said. “He’s basically Joe Rossi Jr. on the field.”
But it’ll take more than one man to replace the production of guys like Martin and departed senior Thomas Barber. Braelen Oliver, if he can stay healthy, is a potential menace on the edge after recording 3.5 tackles for loss and three sacks last season.
Fleck mentioned redshirt freshman Donald Willis and true freshman Cody Lindenberg by name as potential contributors. Redshirt freshman James Gordon IV is also in line for playing time.
Both Willis and Gordon appeared in four games last year while preserving their redshirts.
With cornerbacks Coney Durr and Benjamin St-Juste and safety Jordan Howden all back, the Gophers should be in better shape. But there’s not much experience behind them, so staying healthy — and COVID-free — will be paramount.
“You start getting into who’s going to play and how much they’re going to play, we’re training a lot of guys who haven’t played a lot of football,” Fleck said.
That’s even more true up front. With Coughlin and tackle Sam Renner both graduated, tackles Micah Dew-Treadway and Keonte Schad are the most seasoned, and ends Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe will be counted upon to rush the passer.
Sori-Marin said “Big O” has been one of the most impressive players during fall camp. Mafe checked in at No. 5 on college football writer Bruce Feldman’s annual athletic “Freaks” list.
But with a group this green, there are a few names you’ll be hearing about in the next several weeks that have flown under the radar. If COVID-19 impacts the roster as it has for so many Power 5 teams already playing, that number could grow.
“Every single position, there’s studs on this defense,” Sori-Marin said. “I think the fans are going to be really, really excited about a lot of guys on this team.”
Between rules limiting collisions, the rise of the run-pass option and a general lack of preparation time with most spring practices getting shut down, 2020 has been particularly unkind to defenses in the SEC, Big 12, ACC and elsewhere. Rossi, Fleck and their staff have tried to strike a balance between physical contact that has them ready for game situations while keeping guys healthy.
The focus: limiting big plays and open-fielding tackling.
We’ll see how it pays off in a season-opening tilt for the Little Brown Jug.
“It could be a lot better or a lot worse,” Fleck said of his observations of other . “I think those are the extremes. It’s a little less football in the middle … but it’s been exciting to watch. It’s been unique and different, which a lot of [media and fans] probably feel the same way.
“But it’s football, it’s real, it’s here and we’re excited to get going.”