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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.

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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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Annexstad shows promise in Gophers debut

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Plenty of people were curious about the Minnesota Gophers starting quarterback coming in to the season opener. After all, it’s not often that a true freshman walk-on gets the starting nod. 

But, the attention and pressure of the first college game was not too much to handle for Gophers quarterback Zack Annextad. After a few shaky moments early on, Annexstad looked like he belonged on the field in the Gophers 48-10 victory over New Mexico State. 

Annexstad wasn’t super accurate, completing just 48 percent of his passes. But, he more than made up for it with a blistering 220 yards and two touchdowns. Additionally, he kept the Aggies from picking him off all game long. 

Perhaps the best bit of news is that it appears the Gophers may have more than one good target for Annexstad to work with. Veteran wide receiver Tyler Johnson was on point, catching five passes for 100 yards and both of the touchdown throws.

Rashod Bateman caught five passes and Chris Autman-Bell had four to his name as well. 

Meanwhile, sophomore wide receiver Seth Green looked dangerous as an all-around player. He touched the ball in the backfield twice and scored on both of those touches, giving future opponents plenty to think about when it comes to game-planning for the Gophers.

Minnesota also showed off an impressive run game after a rocky start on the ground. Star running back Rodney Smith racked up 153 yards and the Gophers ran for 295 yards and three touchdowns as a team. 

Add in a defense that allowed just 38 yards on the ground and only 10 points and there is a recipe for success going forward. 

Of course, one has to take in to consideration the caliber of opponent, but for a team with a lot of question marks on offense, there’s little doubt this was a confidence builder. 

While there will be plenty of improvement needed in order for Minnesota to be competitive come Big Ten play, this offense looks and feels different than it did a year ago. 

As far as debuts go, there certainly was promise shown from Annexstad and that’s really all you can ask for from a freshman making his first start. 

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Gophers, Huskers could have games altered by Oregon wildfires

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Mother Nature could wreak havoc on college football this upcoming weekend, but the majority of the news has been focused on an impending hurricane barring down on Florida.

A look out West and things are just as dangerous and deadly, as wildfires are raging in California, Oregon and Washington. That could present a big problem for the Minnesota Gophers game on Saturday night with the Oregon State Beavers and Nebraska’s visit to the Oregon Ducks.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune cites sources within the Pac-12 saying that the game time may be moved or the game moved all together.

While the fire isn’t the problem, it is the air quality in the Eugene area that is. Oregon has already had to move practice closer to the Pacific Coast and the air in Eugene appears to be a major issue.

The smoke in Eugene, where an air protection agency listed the air quality as “hazardous,” prompted Oregon to move its Tuesday practice to Florence, near the Pacific coast.

The good news is that the smoke cleared enough a day later for the Ducks to return to practice in Eugene. But, there is reason to believe the game could still be an issue as smoke is expected to return.

The smoke is supposed to return at some point. But we just don’t know when. … There are too many variables for us to look that far ahead of time.”

Yes, that means we won’t know about the status of Nebraska-Oregon until Saturday itself.

Meanwhile, things don’t look as precarious for the Gophers matchup, but that doesn’t mean change would be out of the question.

“Based upon the information provided by the air protection agency and the expert health and safety advice of the respective University medical professionals, a decision will be made on whether or not to adjust game times and/or dates with the safety of student-athletes and fans as a priority,” Andrew Walker, the Pac-12’s vice president of public affairs, wrote in an e-mail to the (Portland) Oregonian.

Once again, it appears things are going to be in a wait-and-see mode in Corvallis as well.

It hasn’t affected Minnesota all that much, as they are more worried about playing at game that would kick at 9pm in Minneapolis if it were being played at home.

Head coach P.J. Fleck has talked this week about making sure players are staying up later as the week goes on to adjust their bodies. That’s especially important as practices are taking place first thing in the morning this season.

Either way, both of these programs are dealing with a lot of uncertainty right now and that may be the biggest hurdle to get over when prepping for Week 2.

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talking10 Power Poll: Surprises galore in Week 1 poll

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We’re back…after a long offseason, the staff is finally back to watching football, crunching numbers and giving you our opinions on all things Big Ten football.

It also means our weekly staff Power Poll is back as well.

This season we’ve got five staff members voting every week. That includes the following names:

Andy Coppens@AndyOnFootball

Phil Harrison@PhilHarrisonCFB

Philip Rossmann-Reich – @RiseNU

Dave Fitzgerald@BuckeyeFitzy

Zach Worthington@Worthyton

Normally the opening week of the season provides little in the way of knowledge, but that certainly wasn’t the case in 2017. Dare we say the first week of action for the Big Ten was highly entertaining?

You can say that, and we did over at the #B1GRewind Show.

But, how did all of that excitement shake out when it came time to vote? Let’s take a look at the official poll for Week 1:

Let’s just say things were a bit wackier than usual, huh?

Takeaways:

  • Only three teams lost this week, yet it was a winner, Illinois, coming up dead last and it wasn’t even close. The Illini’s unimpressive three-point win was also our winner for “Disappointment of the Week” on the #B1GRewind show…so perhaps their last place finish in the power poll this week was really warranted. It also appears that hanging tough with ranked teams meant a lot to our voters.
  • While the rest of the college football world is in love with Ohio State…our staff is much more in love with the Nittany Lions…well not “much more” but they won out with three first place votes and OSU falling outside the top two in one voters mind.
  • It appears there is going to be an interesting battle for the middle of the pack over the next few weeks. Michigan State was No. 7 in this poll, but had just a three-point lead on No. 10 Nebraska. Let’s just say the next few weeks should shake out the middle a bit more.
  • Speaking of close fights…the battle between Michigan and Wisconsin for the third spot should be an interesting one indeed. Can Wisconsin’s offense keep up the high-scoring and keep UW ahead or will Michigan’s exciting youth movement grow up fast enough to challenge for the top of the East division and thus our poll as well?
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talking10 Pick’Em league has arrived!

Join our staff in a season-long Big Ten predictions challenge! Come on…you know you want to know our picks and beat up on us for bad plays!

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We’ve had fun on the talking10 podcast giving you previews and predictions over the last few seasons. This year we’re turning that up a notch around here.

Yes, you can now play along with us each and every week! Welcome to the talking10 Pick’Em league brought you by Yahoo! Sports.

Each week you’ll hear us make our picks on Wednesday night and filling out our sheets live on the Podcast. You can play alongside all of our staff and shame us as you win or we get to laugh at you as we rise to the top.

This Pick’Em league is free of charge and is for more than just bragging rights. The winner at the end of the season gets a special prize package from us here at talking10. So join up with the following information:

League ID: 3991

Password: Delany17

Finally, please make sure to make your team name your Twitter handle or your first & last name so we have a way to reach out to you once the season is over….if you win!

We dare you to beat us! We double dog dare you!

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