Between now and the Gophers' spring game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 9, we'll be breaking down each position group on both offense and defense. We'll take a look at who is leaving, who is coming back, and what to watch for before Minnesota takes the field for fall training camp.
Next up? The defensive backs.
As I've done throughout these position breakdowns, I'd like to note that this position group features one of the team's captains, and that captain is safety Damarius Travis.
Travis is returning to the field for a fifth year after receiving a medical redshirt a year ago. Travis led the team in tackles in the 2015 season opener against TCU with 10 total, but missed the rest of the season with a severe hamstring injury. Travis has been a key player in the defensive backfield since his freshman year, when he saw action in all of the Gophers' 13 games. In 2013, Travis saw the field again in all 13 games, recording 28 tackles and four pass break-ups on the year. Travis emerged in 2014, finishing fifth on the team in tackles with 61 total, including a season-high 10 tackles against Wisconsin. In 2014, Travis also recorded five pass break-ups, two interceptions, one forced fumble, and one fumble recovery. He will be the veteran leader of this defensive unit.
Key Departure(s): Eric Murray, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Antonio Johnson, and Craig James
Key Returner(s): Damarius Travis, Jalen Myrick, Ace Rogers, Kunle Ayinde, and KiAnte Hardin
New Arrival(s): Coney Durr, Kiondre Thomas, and Antoine Winfield, Jr.
The challenge here in the defensive backfield is obvious. The Gophers need to replace Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, two All-Big Ten cornerbacks who are likely headed to the NFL. Not to mention senior safety Antonio Johnson, an unheralded leader on defense who led the team in tackles a season ago with 102 on the year, including two tackles for loss and one interception. Craig James, a key back-up at cornerback and the team's top punt returner before he broke his leg last season, is also gone after transferring to be closer to home.
Fortunately, the cupboard is far from bare. Senior cornerback Jalen Myrick is ready for the spotlight after serving several years as the chief back-up to Murray and Boddy-Calhoun. Considered the fastest player on the team, Myrick excelled last season before being sidelined after the Ohio State game with a collapsed lung. He recorded three interceptions during the season, including a pick-six against Purdue, in addition to 27 tackles, three tackles for loss, and three pass break-ups. Myrick was named All-Big Ten Honorable Mention at the end of the season, but has the opportunity to be a first- or second-team selection if he plays up to his potential.
The importance of having Travis back also cannot be understated. Travis is an excellent tackler, which made him an invaluable part of the Gophers' run defense. In his absence, former walk-on Kunle Ayinde was not always up to the task. But the scholarship awarded to Ayinde after last season was well deserved. His inexperience often led to coverage breakdowns that were difficult to hide and easy for opposing quarterbacks to exploit, but he performed well given the circumstances. He started 11 games and finished the season with 43 tackles, including 2.5 tackles-for-loss.
Redshirt senior safety Ace Rogers will also be back after being sidelined for the final ten games of the season last year due to a knee injury. Rogers was a JUCO recruit from Iowa Western Community College, and he was pushed briefly into a starting role after the loss of Travis. It was wondered if Rogers would be able to petition for a medical redshirt after missing most of last season, but there has been no word on that. Redshirt junior Duke McGhee will likely compete with Rogers to fill Johnson's vacant safety spot. McGhee came on strong towards the end of last season, finishing the year with 41 tackles and two pass break-ups, including a career-high 12 tackles against Wisconsin.
The upside to the laundry list of injuries the Gophers had to deal with in the secondary last year is that younger players gained valuable experience, sophomore cornerback KiAnte Hardin being chief among them. With Myrick locking down one starting cornerback spot, Hardin is the favorite to claim the other. Hardin won over a lot of fans with his impressive play down the stretch, and also showed his explosive speed as the team's top returner during the latter half of the season.
Sophomore cornerback Antonio Shenault is also expected to compete for playing time after seeing the field last season. One name you're going to want to remember is Ray Buford. Buford is a redshirt freshman that Tracy Claeys has raved about since the end of last season, noting that he was tempted on several occasions to pull his redshirt. Buford will be one to be watch this spring. Redshirt freshman safety Dior Johnson is another player that the coaching staff has singled out in the secondary.
Claeys has also mentioned that incoming freshmen Coney Durr, Kiondre Thomas, and Antoine Winfield, Jr. will all have the opportunity to see the field early. Durr has been singled out for being strong enough and fast enough to compete for immediate playing time, while Thomas has drawn comparisons to Eric Murray coming out of high school.
Even with the significant losses, there is reason to be optimistic about this group of defensive backs. There is considerable talent coming back, although the amount of youth at cornerback will lead to expected growing pains. I imagine there will be a significant dropoff, but if anyone can minimize it, it would be defensive backs coach and newly-minted defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel. In five seasons under Sawvel, the Gophers have ranked 49th, 12th, 35th, 18th, and 11th in passing defense. So the secondary will be good. But the question is, how good?