A lot of the focus of media and fan attention this offseason has been on the offensive side of the ball for the Minnesota Gophers. Rightfully so, given a new offensive coordinator working under head coach Tracy Claeys.
However, change is also happening on the defensive side of the ball with Claeys taking on the head coaching duties and naming a new defensive coordinator to replace himself. That coordinator, Jay Swavel, comes with his own ideas and ultimately would like to work in a lot more 3-4 looks for the defense.
All of that change means plenty of questions for the Gophers defense — especially with a lot of talent gone off a very good defense in 2015.
What will the new-look defense be made of? Let’s take a look at exactly that…
Minnesota’s defensive coaching staff has talked all offseason about getting more aggressive against the quarterback and creating more turnovers. Both seem to be helpful tools for any defensive group. However, that usually means having the tools up front to accomplish said goal.
In 2016, the Gophers enter the season missing both starting defensive ends and grooming a potential star in Gaelin Elmore. He’s spent the past two seasons working his way up the depth chart and appears to be the more athletic of the defensive ends on the two-deep.
Opposite of him is likely Hendrick Ekpe, a senior who has seen plenty of back up time and produced little. His highest tackle total came in 2014, when he put up 14 total tackles on the entire season.
That group is experienced, but will need to show they can produce on a much more consistent level.
Helping that group be more aggressive will be a group of intriguing defensive tackles including Hendrick Ekpe’s brother Scott Ekpe, alongside Steven Richardson.
What could be really intriguing is seeing how this defense become multiple like the coaching staff has discussed all offseason. One man who may help that happen is the big-bodied junior, Merrick Jackson. At 320 pounds, Jackson is the plug up the middle this group needs when going to that type of look.
Can this group find the motor to be more aggressive and get behind the line of scrimmage more? That’s the $1 million question entering the season.
Cody Poock is a name you better get used to hearing, because he may be the best defensive player Minnesota has on its roster in 2016. After all, he did rack up 99 tackles last season to finish second on the team. He also put up 5.5 tackles for loss and one forced fumble as well.
With the team looking to create more turnovers and play more aggressive at the line of scrimmage that is his game. However, this also might be the deepest position on the field and a reason the Gophers might implement more of a 3-4 look to that side of the ball in 2016.
The chief reason for that lies in what the coaching staff saw from fellow inside linebacker Jalen Waters all spring long. He was a monster in the spring game, and that was the case the rest of the way. He may be good enough to force his way on to the field more often than not, so don’t be surprised to see multiple looks from the defense to get his production on the field.
Joining Poock as the likely starters at linebacker are junior Jonathan Celestin and senior Jack Lynn. The latter comes in with 137 career tackles and with an increased effort up front, Lynn could be intriguing.
The issue at this position is where will the sacks and the pressure come from. After all, this group of projected starters have a combined total of 2.5 career sacks at Minnesota.
Names like Nick Rallis and Julian Huff are ones who should also see plenty of playing time given raw ability (Huff) and experience (Rallis), giving this group a nice look to the depth chart.
As much as the defensive line will miss starters from last season, so will the secondary. In fact, there are much bigger shoes to fill in terms of production and star power in the back of the defense than up front.
One name that seems to have stood out the most in a backup role last season and throughout this spring is cornerback Jalen Myrick. The senior was usually amongst the first names out of coaches mouthes this spring for his maturity and production level, but let’s see if that translates when the games are for real and against much different opposition than his own offense.
Myrick should be fine, and often times likely left on an island. However, the opposite corner from him is going to be a work in progress. Two sophomores appear keen on the position in KiAnte Hardin and Antonio Shenault, and Hardin appears to have the upper hand coming out of spring.
Youth is the name of the game with Hardin and Shenault, but don’t sleep on contributions from freshman Ray Buford either, as he is one of the most highly regarded freshmen on the team.
Luckily, whomever is opposite of Myrick is likely to get some help from a future NFL-caliber player in senior safety Damarius Travis. Fellow senior Ace Rodgers is likely to get the call next to him, and if all things remain like they were this spring it could once again be a tough group to throw on come the fall.
Our Projected Starters
DE: Gaelin Elmore, Jr.
DT: Merrick Jackson, Jr.
DT: Scott Ekpe, Sr.
DE: Hendrick Ekpe, Sr.
LB: Jonathan Celestin, Jr.
LB: Cody Poock, Jr.
LB: Jack Lynn, Sr.
CB: Jaylen Myrick, Sr.
SS: Ace Rodgers, Sr.
FS: Damarius Travis, Sr.
CB: KiAnte Hardin, So.