The backbone of this team for years has been the defense. Gopher faithful will be able to stand by the fact that this team could have lost far more games during this success drought had it not been for the defense. Now they need them to step up again, while new head coach P.J. Fleck finds the quarterback of the future.
This will be the unit that needs to grow quickly this season, with senior backs Damarius Travis and Jalen Myrick gone, taking with them 124 tackles and 15 pass breakups. Still others from the secondary will be vacant because of expulsion. With a weak secondary, the importance of returning veterans Antoine Winfield Jr. and Antonio Shenault is magnified for two reasons: The value of two starters and the depth it gives the team.
The secondary is going to be shallow this season, meaning two returning vets who can play the majority of the snaps are a huge asset to have back after the charges leveled against both were cleared back in March. Shenault recorded 32 tackles and two pass breakups at corner, while Winfield had 52 tackles at safety with three pass breakups and 2.5 tackles for loss. Because of the amount of running Big Ten corners and safeties face, it is important that they are able to wrap-up and tackle — hopefully a skill the pair passes onto the next class.
Young players who probably take a bulk of the leftover snaps are going to be Kindre Thomas and Ken Hany-Holly. Both of these players need to mature as football players quickly to compensate for the gap in the secondary.
This is the unit that probably carries the defense, because of the returning studs along with the depth the linebacker corps has maintained. Jonathan Celestin and Cody Poock are two returning starters who bring back 104 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. These two men holding down the middle of the defense will be the pulse of the team as both players can play the pass and the run and can play versatile defense without sacrificing the ability to play downhill between the tackles.
While the other pair of starting linebackers, Nick Rallis and Jack Lynn, are gone, the Gophers have a deep group to fill the holes. Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin were both in a backup role last season and are ready to step up. Barber forced a turnover and Martin got in the backfield on multiple occasions in their freshman seasons, playing in the majority of the Gophers’ games.
The depth for the Gophers is also key, with Blake Cashman, Julian Huff and Carter Coughlin all combining for 17 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks from the linebacker group.
The Defensive Line
While this too is a unit that saw a majority of their starting corps leave last season, the depth from the previous year will bail out the defense. Steven Richardson is the lone returner to the line, after a seven-sack, 11.5 tackle-for-loss season. Here too, the Gophers are well equipped for the lost starters, with plenty of backups moving into the starting lineup from last years, 37 sack front.
Tai’yon Devers, Merrick Jackson and Winston DeLattiboudere are all returning to the Gophers and should be part of the starting rotation. Every single one of the players coming up into the starting rotation has recorded a sack and tackle for loss. This is another position that has players stepping up into starter roles, who already have shown their worth on the field.
The weakest part of the defense is the secondary, which still has two established starters. The defense will thrive off a steady pass rush and solid run defense, with linebackers who play downhill and fly around being the key to their success. The defense is prepped to carry the load while the offense finds itself.