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Minnesota Football: Diagnosing the Gophers’ lack of depth in the secondary

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Injuries and suspensions have exposed recruiting lapses that were going to haunt the Gophers sooner or later

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

You could feel the hearts of Gopher football fans everywhere collectively drop on Saturday when sophomore Gopher defensive back Antoine Winfield, Jr. was down on the field. After being helped off the field by the training staff, he would not return to the game after re-aggravating the hamstring injury that sidelined him during the preseason game, and is likely to miss this week’s road game against Purdue.

With the loss of Winfield, the Gophers were down to nine scholarship defensive backs (not counting the injured Zo Craighton and the suspended Duke McGhee), four of whom are true freshmen. That’s shocking for a Power 5 program that has won at least eight games in three of their last four seasons while maintaining largely the same coaching staff over that same period. How did we get to this point?

Let’s begin with a breakdown of the roster.

Scholarship Defensive Backs

Scholarship Defensive Backs

For a larger version on mobile: https://i.imgur.com/UiMShs8.png

Just three upperclassmen who were recruited as scholarship athletes? More freshmen than there are juniors and seniors? That’s not how you build a roster. That’s how you build a house of cards, and we’ve only begun to see it topple. How does this happen? In my opinion, it comes down to three things: Recruiting, injuries, and attrition. I know some have laid the blame on the expulsions from last year, but I believe it goes beyond that.

Recruiting

Defensive Back Recruiting 2013-18

For a larger version on mobile: https://i.imgur.com/U7DUUhx.png

2013: Jalen Myrick would not redshirt as a freshman and is now playing for the Jacksonville Jaguars after an outstanding career at Minnesota, in which he saw action in 47 games and started 21 of them. Duke McGhee is a current starter at safety, but has been suspended as of last week for an unspecified violation of team rules.

2014: Cornerback Craig James lasted two seasons at Minnesota before transferring to Southern Illinois to be closer to home. With his departure, the 2014 recruiting class ended up without a single defensive back. Hence, there are no redshirt junior or senior defensive backs on the roster. This is particularly egregious when you consider that the previous coaching stuff brought in just two defensive backs in 2013.

2015: Here, the coaching staff attempted to compensate for 2013 and 2014 by loading up on defensive backs. It backfired. Three of the seven defensive backs from this class were dismissed from the program last year. It would have been impossible for the staff to foresee that happening, but it also helps illustrate the foolish risk of using one recruiting class to make up for the mistakes of the previous two. The addition of JUCO safety Ace Rogers also helped for about three games before he tore his ACL, which knocked him out for the rest of 2015. He did not see game action in 2016.

Looking back, these three recruiting classes combined to contribute just four defensive backs to the current roster. That’s not a recipe for success.

2016: Kiondre Thomas is now a starter at cornerback as a redshirt freshman, while Coney Durr has seen limited action while he recovers from a torn ACL. I think we can all attest that Antoine Winfield, Jr. has been a saving grace.

2017: Ken Handy-Holly was forced into action due to the injury to Winfield, and Rey Estes is expected to follow suit with Craighton out. Justus Harris has not seen the field, and Adam Beck was a late arrival to camp and has also not seen the field.

2018: As you can see, the current staff has emphasized the defensive back positions, and are believed to be looking to add at least one more before Signing Day. I suspect it will be a point of emphasis again in the 2019 recruiting class, as well.

Injuries

Injuries are precisely why you recruit depth. So when you neglect a particular position group in recruiting, injuries are very quickly going to expose that lack of depth. In the Holiday Bowl, freshman cornerback Coney Durr was lost to a torn ACL. Although he has been cleared to play less than a year later, he doesn’t appear close to 100 percent yet. Coupled with the loss of sophomore cornerback Zo Craighton for the season, the Gophers have four healthy scholarship cornerbacks, with only one upperclassman.

At safety, the loss of Antoine Winfield, Jr., even for a game, due to a hamstring injury looms large. Even as a sophomore, Winfield is a leader on defense and arguably the best player on the field at times. His replacement against Maryland? True freshman Ken Handy-Holly, who was seeing the first game action of his college career. That kind of dropoff is significant.

Suspensions, transfers, and dismissals

The transfer of Craig James. The suspension of safety Duke McGhee. The dismissals of KiAnte Hardin, Ray Buford, and Dior Johnson. That’s five defensive backs who could’ve seen the field on Saturday had things played out differently. When you handicap yourself in recruiting, it’s nearly impossible to sustain these kind of unforeseen losses. Hardin and James both would have been upperclassmen and probable starters at cornerback this year. McGhee, who is expected to miss at least one more game, was sorely missed in run support against Maryland.

The path forward

Regardless of whether it was Tracy Claeys or P.J. Fleck leading the team out of the tunnel this fall, these recruiting failures were going to rear their ugly head sooner or later. You can’t whiff on consecutive recruiting classes and not expect there to be consequences down the road. It’s possible the Gophers might have been able to weather the storm this season had Craighton and Winfield remained healthy and McGhee avoided suspension, but here we are. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith certainly has his work cut out for him moving forward. And as far as recruiting goes, we’re already seeing Fleck take the necessary steps to address the problem, although things might get worse before they getter with the youth movement.