Moving on to the defensive projected starters. This side of the ball is going to be pretty interesting. Key returners will give this unit a base of reliable studs to be mixed in with a handful of guys who are replacing last year's defensive stalwarts. Losing talented players like Briean Boddy-Calhoun, Antonio Johnson, De'Vondre Campbell, Thieran Cockran and Eric Murray would be a massive blow to any other Gopher defense in my lifetime. But they have moved on, some to the NFL Draft, and the Gopher defense will look to reload and rely upon Steven Richardson, Cody Poock, Jack Lynn, Damarius Travis and Jalen Myrick. Going to be an interesting transition, here are my projected starters.
Starter: Galin Elmore & Hendrick Ekpe
Backup: Winston DeLattiboudere & Julien Kafo
The Rest: Jerry Gibson
Five names you'll most likely see on the field. The 2016 recruiting class took a hit at this key position when JUCO transfer Tralund Webber flipped to Oklahoma State. This group could use another talented and experienced body. But these are the names.
Elmore is a lock to start and the other spot is a little bit less determined. I would make the case for Ekpe who is the most experienced but the light bulb hasn't quite gone off yet for the senior. He started 11 games last year and will likely be lining it up on the first snap of this year. Needs to produce more and help this group up it's production. Elmore got plenty of playing time behind Cockran last year and the junior is poised to be the statistical leader of this crew.
DeLattiboudere and Kafo really have very little game-experience but will have every opportunity to play because...well somebody has to.
The interesting name here is Jerry Gibson, who is going to use his big and athletic frame on the defensive side of the ball after playing TE/WR his first couple years. I wouldn't be surprised at all if he has an impact this season. Then names like Jonathan Celestin, Julian Huff and maybe even Carter Coughlin could emerge as linebackers who occasionally get in a three-point-stance to get some QB pressure, particularly on passing downs.
Starter: Steven Richardson & Merrick Jackson
Backup: Scott Ekpe & Andrew Stetler
The Rest: Gary Moore & Yoshoub Timms
This position is truly a position of strength for the defense. Richardson has established himself as one of the better, albeit unknown, DTs in the conference. Ekpe had a nice junior season (when healthy) and the addition of Merrick Jackson is really going to further this unit's talent and depth. Then you add Stetler, Moore and Timms who have all had good experience under their belt.
Overall, this group is going to be one of the strengths of the defense. I would expect, however, that this will be a big area of focus for 2017 recruiting. They should be fine next year as well in terms of talent/depth, but will need some fresh blood coming in soon.
Starter: Jack Lynn - Cody Poock - Jonathan Celestin
Backup: Nick Rallis - Jalyen Waters - Julian Huff
The Rest: Everett Williams, Blake Cashman, Carter Coughlin, Ray Dixon
Here is group where I love the starters but am worried about depth. Jack Lynn and Cody Poock were two of the team's leaders in terms of tackles.
Starter: Jalen Myrick & Kiante Hardin
Backup: Antonio Shenault & Ray Buford
The Rest: Coney Durr, Antoine Winfield Jr, Kiondre Thomas
Pretty rare that you can put two corners into the NFL (one drafted and one signed as a free agent) and then still have confidence in your corners the following year. But much of the ability to be confident in our 2016 corners centers on Jalen Myrick who may be the next Gopher corner drafted. Three consecutive drafts the Gophers have had a member of the secondary drafted and I will not be at all surprised to see Myrick (along with Travis) have their name called next spring. The senior stepped in and was very successful last Fall when Briean Boddy-Calhoun was briefly injured and Myric ended up starting 7 games (missing 3 himself due to injury). Great speed and is a play-maker on the field, he will be relied upon heavily on the outside.
Starting opposite Myrick will likely be Kiante Hardin, a sophomore who played all 13 games last year and was named the team's Outstanding Defensive Freshman. A strong freshman season and an offseason of knowing what to expect should allow him to enter the season with more confidence will hopefully show up with Hardin being a very good season opposite Myrick.
Depth is always needed at corner and the Gophers have a number of young kids who will have plenty of opportunities to earn some time on the field. Ray Buford and Antonio Shenault are second year players (Buford redshirted while Shenault saw action in 12 games) who will both likely be playing this Fall. Buford is a kid with reportedly tremendous tools and a nice 6'2" frame, a possible breakout player this season. Shenault played in 12 games as a true freshman, starting one.
And after those 4 names you have a trio of freshmen who all could potentially see action. Every year you see Jay Sawvel playing a true freshmen (or two) and this year will likely be no different. Coney Durr is the odds on favorite to be first up and the Gophers earned his commitment despite late pushes from North Carolina and Virginia Tech. Durr is a tough kid with all the tools to make an immediate impact. Antoine Winfield Jr is also in that conversation as a fast and tough kid who could earn his way onto field quickly. And Koindre Thomas is also in the mix bringing really good length and solid speed to the position. This was an exciting crop of freshman corners and any or all of the three could be making an impact this Fall.
Starter: Damarius Travis & Ace Rogers
Backup: Kunle Ayinde, Eric Amoako & Duke McGhee
The Rest: Jacob Huff, Dior Johnson & Zo Craighton
Damarius Travis is quite possibly our best defensive player and after being injured during the TCU game last year and missing the rest of the season he was granted a medical redshirt and given an extra year of eligibility. That was a huge gain for the Gopher secondary and softens the blow of the losses to graduation. Travis is capable of being an All-Big Ten performer and may also see his name called on Draft Day 2017.
Starting opposite Travis will probably initially be Ace Rogers. JUCO transfer who was also injured for most of last season playing in only 3 games but he is a talented and experienced DB with good cover skills. There are number of options at the other safety spots but I believe Rogers will be your game 1 starter.
Battling for playing time and a starting position will be Ayinde, the former walk-on who was forced into a starting role for much of last year. Ayinde had a really good Fall camp and filled in admirably with 11 starts last year. He will be in the rotation but hopefully less of a starting type of role. Eric Amoako is the recent graduate transfer and former Oregon recruit, he was brought in because of his experience to add some secondary depth. Duke McGhee played in all 13 games as a sophomore making 41 tackles (ranking 9th on the team, who knew?). All three will be part of the rotation I am sure.
Then you have a few more guys with less experience but could also be called into the mix. Jacob Huff participated in 8 games as a freshman, largely on special teams. Dior Johnson is a physical specimen who redshirted last year and will have a chance to earn playing time this Fall. And Zo Craighton also redshirted last Fall and will be in the mix this coming season.
So there you have the defense and possible starters. This is going to be an interesting unit. Several key pieces were lost but strangely I think there is enough quality pieces coming back who have the opportunity to be very good, that overall you may not see a dip in production here. Up the middle this group is very strong. Concerns of depth at linebacker and corner along with concerns at defensive end would lead my list of top three things I worry about. But I like how this is shaping up. There are several very good players and a nice balance of youth and experience here.