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Minnesota Gophers Football Preview: State of the 2017 Defense

What to make of the 2017 Minnesota Gophers defense as we head towards the first season of the P.J. Fleck era.

Tracy Claeys is no longer in charge of the defense, and that is a big transfer of power (pun not intended). After all, he had been the defensive coordinator and/or head coach for the better part of six seasons for the Minnesota Gophers.

With P.J. Fleck in the fold, there’s a new man in charge of the defense and that man is Robb Smith. He comes from Arkansas and the tutelage of Brett Bielema, where defense has always been the key to success whether at Wisconsin or in WPS territory.

Earlier This Week: Lessons from 2016 | State of the 2017 offense | Bold Predictions | talking10 Podcast | Impact Players |

Well, given the changes taking place on this side of the ball, it is only right to place the defense under the microscope.

So, let’s take a look at the good and the bad news for the 2017 Gophers defense.

 

The good news is…

Minnesota’s biggest overall strength under Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys was the defensive side of the ball. They were usually a top half of the Big Ten defense and that means the cupboard isn’t fully bare for this coaching change over.

Sure, only six starters are back, but recruiting and coaching up of players has been a strength of the previous staff. That means Smith and Co. have a group that is willing to work hard and be molded in to what this staff is going to ask of them.

Having a good base to work from is important in keeping this program from falling backwards before making strides forward. If the Gophers want to be successful in 2017, it will flat-out begin and end with what happens defensively.

The bad news is…

Antonio Shenault — his is the only name anyone outside of the program may know in the Gophers secondary. That theme applies throughout the 2017 defense, because a lot of the talent that produced the numbers that allowed the Gophers’ success over the past few years are gone.

No position highlights that more than at cornerback, where names like Eric Murray, Briean-Boddy Calhoun, Jalen Myrick and KiAnte Hardin were all productive on the field. They are all gone and that leaves a massive hole in the secondary. Sure, Antonie Winfield, Jr. could be potentially productive and there are a pair of returning starters at safety (Duke McGhee and Adekunle Ayinde), but they will need to make a big leap in 2017 to help this defense out.

It also coincides with improving passing games at Nebraska, Purdue and Wisconsin in the West division. Heading in to the season with a lot of unproven players in the secondary isn’t exactly what a new coaching staff would like to see.

The bad news is…

Minnesota’s defense isn’t just thin at the back. It is thin on experience and talent up front as well. Sure, third team All-Big Ten defensive tackle Steven Richardson is back, but thanks to graduation and transfer there isn’t much left for the coaching staff to hang its hat on.

Don’t believe me? Well, the fact that Minnesota is likely to take seven ($)…yes SEVEN defensive linemen (including four tackles) in this class should speak volumes. Simply put, this group needs a talent infusion in the worst way.

It won’t come in 2017 obviously, and that means Minnesota’s coaching staff is going to have to find ways to hide some deficiencies up front. That’s a problem in a division with offensive lines like the ones Iowa and Wisconsin regularly put together. Northwestern is no slouch up front either these days.

Let’s also not forget that a literal five-man crew on the Gophers offensive line were able to hold up well all spring against a much deeper group of defensive linemen. While that bodes well for the other side of the ball, that’s unsettling news if you are on the defensive side of things.

The good news is…

Bryce Paup is around to coach the defensive line we just talked about. He was one of the most vicious edge rushers in his day in the NFL back in the 1990’s. Since then, Paup has worked his way up the coaching ranks from Green Bay Southwest high school to Northern Iowa and now to the University of Minnesota.

With his arrival in Minneapolis, Paup has a chance to mold a younger group of defensive linemen. He also has a really intriguing piece to work with in Richardson. The interior of the line also has Merrick Jackson to bolster things up a bit.

But, beyond them, Paup has a few really talented youngsters to mold. Freshmen like Esezi Otomewo and Malcolm Robinson possess ready-made bodies for the defensive line. If anyone can get a pass rush going as a coach for this team, Paup is that kind of guy.

What Does It All Mean?

Much like the offense, a lot will remain unknown about the 2017 Gophers defense throughout the offseason. There are just so many holes to fill on the starting lineup and so much youth on the depth chart. Anyone that thinks they know exactly what will happen with this group tomorrow, let alone in mid-October is just downright foolish.

What I do know is that with Smith and his coaching staff around this program the energy is going to be at an all-time high. It will be interesting to see how the older players respond to that new energy and the new culture around the program.

If they all buy in, this could be a defense that makes people afraid to play Minnesota in 2017 and beyond. That is a big if right now though.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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