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2015 Minnesota Football Preview: A Look at the Elite Gopher Defense

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David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Transitioning from 2014 to 2015 the Gopher offense is in the crosshairs as the key to sustained success for Gopher football.  Most believe that the defense is going to be very good and special teams will be one of the Big Ten's best as well.  If the Gophers want to take another step forward, it all depends on the offense.  This year there are a couple significant pieces to replace and several intriguing additions.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

GONE: Cameron Botticelli, Harold Legania
RETURNING: Steven Richardson, Scott Ekpe, Gary Moore, Yoshoub Timms, Andrew Stetler, Robert Ndondo-Lay
REDSHIRTED: none
INCOMING: Justin Carr (Rochester CC), Mose Hall

Botticelli was a nice player for the Gophers and Legania was solid as well but I anticipate a bigger year for the Gopher tackles.  Steven Richardson turned out to be a great recruiting find out of the Chicago area and I fully expect to see him as a disruptive force in the backfield.  Earned the Gopher's Defensive Freshman of the Year and started the final 12 games. Scott Ekpe participated in all 26 games during his FR and SO seasons then injured his knee in the first game of his JR year, missing the entire 2014 season.  He is back and should start alongside Richardson to form a dangerous set.

The Gopher defense is often rotating their tackles so the second set of tackles is also rather important.  Up next will likely be a trio of players.  Senior, Ndondo-Lay, who played in all 13 games last year after transferring to the U from Winona State.  Along with Ndondo-Lay will be a pair of sophomores who got good experience as true freshmen last year.  Owatonna native, Andrew Stetler and  Gary Moore from Alabama.  It would be huge for the Gopher defense if one of these sophomores were to step up and show some real progress in their second seasons.

Also be prepared to see Timms on the field plenty, perhaps ahead of Moore.  Timms is a junior and has had a good Fall camp.

Richardson and Ekpe are going to be a very good pair, depth isn't as much of a sure thing but I like this unit.  But these six young men should be the names you will see throughout the season.

2014 Grade: B
2015 Preseason Grade: B+

DEFENSIVE END

GONE: Michael Amaefula, Ben Perry
RETURNING: Theiran Cockran, Hank Ekpe, Gaelin Elmore, Alex Keith
REDSHIRTED: Julien Kafo
INCOMING: Winston DeLattiboudere

Cockran is the headlining name of this group, but he isn't the only one with talent here  In my opinion, I've never been a huge fan of Cockran.  Very talented and is great at getting to the quarterback but frustrates me when I see him blow contain.  But he is an All-Big Ten talent and the senior is primed for a big season, would love to see him hit double-digit sacks!  On the other end will be Hank Ekpe, brother of Scott who will be starting at DT.  Hank has played in 23 games over his two seasons with 1 start and 1.5 sacks  He is my pick to be the breakout defensive player this year and with the other talented players along the Gopher defensive line, he should be free to do some real damage.

Up next is going to be the true sophomore from Wisconsin, Gaelin Elmore.  As a true freshman he played in all 13 games and should see plenty of action along the line this year as part of the rotation.  Expect to see Alex Keith and Julian Kafo fighting for reps as well.

Overall, like the tackles, I really like our starters here.  Our starting defensive line is going to be very good.  Room for guys like Elmore or Kafo to breakout this year and giving us some depth.  Just five names here, which will be fine unless there are injuries.  Remember, there were four true freshmen who had to play along the defensive line last year.  While that may be good for their development, it is not ideal to be playing true freshmen along the line in the Big Ten.

2014 Grade: B
2015 Preseason Grade: B-

LINEBACKER

GONE: Damien Wilson
RETURNING: Jack Lynn, DeVondre Campbell, Jonathan Celstin, Everett Williams, Ray Dixon, Nick Rallis, Chris Wipson
REDSHIRTED: none
INCOMING: Cody Poock (JUCO), Julian Huff, Jaylen Waters

A year ago I (along with many others) was saying that this is best Gopher linebacking crew in a very long time.  This crew, despite the loss of Wilson, may be better.  Jack Lynn and DeVondre Campbell return to ensure the strong and weak side linebacker spots are secure.  Campbell is an athletic freak with talent to be playing on Sundays, but struggles in his discipline to be where he needs to be at all times.  When he is tuned in, he makes plays.  2.5 sacks, three fumble recoveries and an interception for a touchdown against Michigan.  Campbell could be the best player in the front-seven, but also could be the name you are muttering under your breath after an opponent's big play.

Jack Lynn is consistent, reliable and also talented.  The junior started seven games as a sophomore and finished 6th on the team in tackles.  Also a play-maker who forced three fumbles and had 7 tackles for a loss.  A native of Zurich, IL who will be a leader on the defense.  Another candidate to really break out to be one of the best on the Gopher defense.

Starting in the middle and having the unenviable task of replacing Damien Wilson is still a tight battle between sophomore Everett Williams and the JUCO transfer, Cody Poock.  Williams played last year as a true freshman in 8 games.  Poock was injured in spring ball last year, missed the 2014 season but still will have 3 years to play.  Both sophomores have been solid throughout Fall camp, I believe Williams will be the starter but expect to see both playing significant snaps giving the Gophers a couple of solid options in the middle.

On the outside, backing up Campbell and Lynn, will be headlined by hard-hitting Jonathan Celestin and the true-freshman Julian Huff who has earned himself a spot on the two-deep.  Celestin was forced to play last year as a true freshman and has really been making plays throughout the Fall, he will be part of the rotation and relied upon throughout the year.  Huff has earned praise in the spring and fall, I would be very surprised to see his redshirt used this year.

I really like all six Gophers expected to fill up the 2-deep.  This is a deep and talented unit.

2014 Grade: A-
2015 Preseason Grade: A

CORNER BACK

GONE: Derrick Wells, Marcus Jones
RETURNING: Eric Murray, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Jalyn Myrick, Craig James
REDHIRTED: none
INCOMING: Antonio Shenault, KiAnte Hardin

This is the meat of the Gopher defense and both starters have a chance to be drafted next Spring.  Eric Murray is the corner that nobody outside of Minnesota and Big Ten offensive coordinators has ever heard of.  Nobody throws his direction and when they do it is often not a successful endeavor.  Murray is great at press coverage and the rest of the Gopher defense is predicated on the idea that they can leave Murray on an island.  One of the best and appreciate every chance you get to watch him this year.  Murray does very little talking, choosing to lead by example.

On the other side is Boddy-Calhoun, a very good corner as well who makes big plays because teams are forced to throw his way more often...and he makes them pay.  BBC had 14 passes defensed last year and made 5 picks.  Watching practices this Fall it was awesome to watch Boddy-Calhoun on the sidelines when the second or third string corners were on the field and he was giving them tips, telling them were to line up and acting as a player-coach.  Both of these starting corners are very good leaders with different styles and will lead the Gopher defense.

Behind them are a handful of talented kids as well.  Jalen Myrick and Craig James are both incredibly fast, have had plenty of Big Ten experience, should be solid backups and primed to step into the big shoes of Murray/BBC next year.  While neither of them are at the level of the senior starters, both are very good corners in their own right.  James was forced to play as a true freshman last just as Myrick was in 2013.

And behind those two are a couple of talented freshmen in Hardin and Shenault.  Watching a few practices this Fall, it would seem that if one of these freshman were forced to play in 2015, it would be Hardin.

I love our entire defensive backfield but it is highlighted by the four names on the 2-deep at corner.  Big Ten receivers will not enjoy seeing these corners (lets hope that facing them has made the Gopher receivers better).

2014 Grade: A
2015 Preseason Grade: A+

SAFETY

GONE: Cedric Thompson, Grayson Levine
RETURNING: Antonio Johnson, Damerius Travis,  Adekunle Ayinde, Duke McGhee
REDSHIRTED: none
INCOMING: Ace Rodgers (JUCO), Dior Johnson, Ray Buford, Jacob Huff, Zo Craighton

The starters here are also among the best in the Big Ten and stand a chance to be drafted.  Both Johnson and Travis started often last year as part of a three-man rotation (with Cedric Thompson, who was drafted) and will be counted upon as key members of the Gopher defense.

These two starting safeties have combined to participate in 76 games out of a possible 78 combined games while splitting many of the starts over the past couple years.  Travis is a versatile safety who finished fourth on the Gophers in tackles, had 2 picks, 3.5 TFLs and 7 passes defensed.  The senior moves up to the front-seven in the nickel package.  Johnson starts at the other safety with two career picks and 72 career tackles.

Behind the senior starters will be the JUCO transfer Ace Rodgers and a surprising walk-on Adekunle Ayinde (can someone come up with a good nick-name here?).  Ayinde has come out of nowhere to make himself a key member of this Gopher secondary.  In fact, expect Ayinde to be the first guy on the field in nickel situations with Travis moving up.  Rodgers has been running with the second team and will see the field plenty.  I would expect the talented JUCO transfer to be solid and a candidate to breakout next season.

A handful of freshmen with some talent will hopefully all be able to redshirt and be ready to step into the vacant roles next year when Travis and Johnson graduate.  Dior Johnson is a physical specimen who will be fun to watch over his career. Jacob Huff (like his brother) has received some praise throughout the spring and fall.  And Zo Craighton has made some plays as well this Fall but hopefully will be given time to mature.

Much like the rest of the defense, this unit is very good both now and in the future. Love the stability, reliability and consistency of Travis and Johnson here.  Less of a body of work to look at Rodgers and Ayinde but they have been earning their right to be part of the Gopher 2-deep.

2014 Grade: B
2015 Preseason Grade: B+

Quite possibly the best Gopher defense many of us have seen in decades, likely our lifetimes.  Maybe the best secondary in the conference with very good starters in the front-seven to give us something fun to watch when our 12 (13) opponents take the field.  This is going to be a fun group to watch.