How have the Minnesota Gophers gone from doormats to challengers for a division crown in just four years time? By doing the classic Big Ten things — have a powerful running game and playing some stout defense.
While the Gophers defensive group has never been loaded with stars that national pundits or fans would talk about on a daily basis, there has never been a lack of quality thanks to good coaching and talent evaluation.
Now the Gophers are upping the ante after nearly winning the Big Ten West division title last season. That means the defense also needs to step its game up. With two big named players gone, can the expectations be met by reality in 2015?
Let’s take a look at the 2015 Gophers defense.
With Theiren Cockran back, Minnesota’s defensive line has a chance to be really good. Last season, Cockran tied for the lead on the team with 4.0 sacks and had 7.0 tackles for loss. This season he’ll be leaned on more to be a force in the backfield thanks to departures elsewhere, and we fully expect him to increase those key stats for a defensive end.
Now the trick will be finding a partner on the opposite side to help Cockran out. There are two likely candidates to fill that role in Hendrick Ekpe and Gaelin Elmore, both sophomores on this team. My bet is Elmore, who has shown explosiveness and is being groomed as the likely replacement for Cockran.
Inside, the Gophers appear stout up the middle again with Steven Richardson back after a promising freshman season as a starter. He had 23 total tackles, 2.0 sacks and 6.0 tackles for loss while deferring to others most of the season. That won’t happen in 2015, and he could be a great help to keeping extra offensive linemen off of the ends.
Stepping up to fill the other defensive tackle position should be Robert Ndondo-Lay, who played well in a backup role last season. His experience over the last three years should be a valuable asset to a group that is getting younger behind the expected starters.
There’s no doubt that Minnesota is going to miss Damien Wilson, who led the team in tackles and sacks among other statistical categories. However, the Gophers will maintain a good level of consistency at the position this season with De’Vondre Campbell and Jack Lynn back in starting roles.
Campbell was impressive, and very underrated based off what we saw last season. With Wilson gone, Campbell’s numbers should take a good jump up the stat sheet. However, his 75 tackles were good for third on the team last season already.
Who replaces Wilson is the big question mark heading in to fall camp. Some have penciled in sophomore Everett Williams and it appears that is a good choice from what we saw during spring ball. He commands the middle of the field well and attacks with good abandon as well. Williams will have to fight off senior Alex Keith, but if spring was an indication, Williams is the better option now and for the long-term at the position.
Depth is there overall at the position as well, and that makes this the better of the two parts of the defensive front seven.
Minnesota’s biggest strength at a single position on the team comes in the secondary. Not only do they return arguably the most productive cornerback, but they also return three of four starters and all three are seniors as well.
Briean Boddy-Calhoun is a bona fide star and should be in line for national respect and awards following the season. At least if he keeps up with the production he had last season, where he racked up 51 tackles, five interceptions and nine passes broken up.
Across from him is senior Eric Murray, and that tandem could be the No. 1 cornerback tandem in the Big Ten. He had 69 tackles, one interception and seven passes broken up while playing a smaller role thanks to Cedric Thompson’s abilities all over the field. That won’t be necessary this season with Thompson off to the NFL.
Minnesota will have to count on Damarius Travis, who has starting experience under his belt to lead things in the absence of Thompson now. Overall, that trio is one of the best the Big Ten has to offer and is really the reason Minnesota can compete with just about anyone on any given day (just not TCU).
The question mark here comes if anything happens to the starters, as Minnesota is thin on experience and contributions behind this group. All three returning starters have been pretty healthy in their careers, so Minnesota must hold out hope that happens again or there could be some trouble.
Question(s) Still to Answer in Fall Camp:
— Can a Second Pass-Rushing Option Develop?
For all the success that Minnesota has had defensively, few will cower in fear at its overall pass rush. There has always been one good option, but a second has never really emerged just yet. If it changes in 2015 look to sophomore Gaelin Elmore to be that guy. He’s got a great motor, plays well in space and does good work with his hands and long arms. The issue is he’s green, but game experience is likely to help a naturally gifted player.
Our Projected Starters:
DE: Theiren Cockran, Sr.
DT: Robert Ndondo-Lay, Sr.
DT: Steven Richardson, So.
DE: Gaelin Elmore, So.
LB: De’Vondre Campbell, Sr.
LB: Everett Williams, So.
LB: Jack Lynn, Jr.
CB: Eric Murray, Sr.
FS: Antonio Johnson, Sr.
SS: Demarius Travis, Sr.
CB: Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Sr.