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Minnesota Football: Spring Position Previews - Defensive Line

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The Gophers have talent on the defensive line, but a staggering lack of underclassmen could hurt them

Rutgers v Minnesota Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Leading up to the Gophers’ spring game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 15, we’re breaking down each position group. Today, we’re talking about a position group with a lot of talent but not nearly enough depth: Defensive line.

Key Departure(s): Gaelin Elmore, Hendrick Ekpe, Scott Ekpe, and Yoshoub Timms
Key Returner(s): Steven Richardson, Andrew Stelter, Winston DeLattiboudere, Merrick Jackson, Tai’yon Devers, and Gary Moore
Spring Enrollee(s): None
Fall Enrollee(s): Royal Silver, Noah Hickcox, Boye Mafe, Esezi Otomewo, Malcolm Robinson, and Austin Schirck

With the announcement last week that he plans to transfer from Minnesota, defensive end Gaelin Elmore represents the third departing starter from the Gophers’ defensive line last season. Elmore played in 38 games and started nine of them in his career at Minnesota, but never had a breakout season. Last season’s 16 tackles, four tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks all represented career highs for Elmore. As a senior with experience at a position that lacks depth, he likely would have started at defensive end this fall.

The Ekpe brothers have anchored the Gophers’ defensive line for the last two seasons. Hendrick started 22 games at defensive end the last two years, and led all defensive ends last season in tackles with 28, including 7.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. Scott started 15 games at defensive tackle over the last two years, and a season ago recorded 17 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, one sack, and two fumble recoveries. Timms made four starts in 2015, but spent most of his career providing depth and figuring into the rotation at defensive tackle. Last season, he made seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, and one sack.

An NFL veteran will lead the defensive line

Bryce Paup is an interesting hire as defensive line coach for the Gophers. He has only been a college coach for the last four years, which he spent as defensive line coach at his alma mater, Northern Iowa. He played linebacker at UNI from 1986-89, before moving on to an 11-year career in the NFL. Paup was a four-time Pro Bowl selection and even earned defensive MVP honors in 1995 as a member of the Buffalo Bills.

As defensive line coach at UNI, Paup had quite a bit of success. In each season under Paup, the Panthers’ defense ranked in top 40 nationally in rushing defense, total defense, and sacks. He was also instrumental in the development of defensive end Karter Schult, who was awarded the FCS STATS Buck Buchanan Award as the best defensive player in FCS football. Schult led all of FCS last season with 17 sacks in the regular season and set a school record for tackles for loss with 24. He was also the 2016 MVFC Defensive Player of the Year, FCS ADA Defensive Player of the Year, Madness FCS Defensive Player of the Year, and a consensus All-American.

The Gophers will run a base 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Robb Smith, but the weakside defensive end will often serve in a stand-up role as a rush end. P.J. Fleck and staff are referring to this as the “R” role and have said this will be one of the most versatile positions on the field. Players in the “R” role must be able to stunt and rush the passer or drop into man or zone coverage, and they’ll either be standing up or have their hand on the ground. This spring, the staff has had Tai’yon Devers and linebackers Carter Coughlin and Trenton Guthrie working out at this position, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see linebackers Blake Cashman and Julian Huff also utilized in this same role once they are both healthy and practicing.

I would also expect Smith to mix things up beyond the 4-3, for those of you who enjoyed the creativity of defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel last season. The Gophers have already been practicing some 2-4-5 this spring by taking a defensive tackle off the field, shifting the “R” role back into a linebacker spot, and adding a nickel defensive back.

Underclassmen are overrated, I guess

Steven Richardson is a name everyone should be familiar with. The defensive tackle heads into his senior season with high expectations after leading all defensive linemen last year in tackles (31), tackles for loss (11), and sacks (seven). Richardson has started 33 games over the last three seasons for the Gophers, and he’ll be expected to headline an experienced group of defensive lineman that is woefully short on depth. Opposite Richardson, I expect we’ll see either Andrew Stelter or Merrick Jackson. Stelter started five games last season and recorded 18 tackles, three tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks. Jackson was an Iowa Western Community College recruit and notched eight tackles, two tackles for loss, and one safety in his first season at Minnesota.

Redshirt junior Gary Moore is the only other defensive tackle on the roster this spring. Obviously, depth is an issue. Why are there no freshman or sophomore defensive tackles on the roster? Your guess is as good as mine. Fortunately, some help is on the way. Come fall camp, the Gophers will add Royal Silver, Malcolm Robinson, and Austin Schirck to the mix.

Silver is an JUCO transfer from Iowa Western Community College. Fleck has typically been averse to junior college transfers in the past, so the fact that he pursued Silver is a clear indicator that depth is an issue and that Silver can help immediately. The 6’4’’, 290-lb. defensive tackle recorded 63 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and one interception at Iowa Western, and was named second-team JUCO All-American. Robinson could also see the field next season.

Schirck is likely a redshirt candidate, even with the lack of depth, but Fleck did make a point to identify him as the steal of the class at his Signing Day presser. Schirck was committed to Northern Iowa before being offered a scholarship at Minnesota once Paup was hired. He attended two camps in high school, which likely contributed to his under-the-radar status, and has been described as a “lunchpail” type of player with a high motor.

At defensive end, the Gophers must replace both starters. Redshirt sophomore Winston DeLattiboudere is all but certain to be a starter and has had a breakout spring after notching 15 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks a season ago. And everyone remembers sophomore Tai’yon Devers and his three strip sacks during the non-conference slate last season. But Devers was limited due to an ankle injury early in conference play and reduced to a role as a pass rushing specialist, finishing the season with five tackles, three tackles for loss, and three sacks. Reports from practice have indicated that Devers is tearing it up in the “R” role and has made impressive plays in coverage, although his ability to stop the run remains a question mark.

Redshirt junior Jerry Gibson, a former tight end who converted during his freshman year, played in four games last season, recording just two tackles.

Of the incoming freshman defensive ends, I think Esezi Otomewo has the best chance of seeing the field this fall. At 6’6’’, 235-lbs, Otomewo has the size and athleticism, but has only been playing football for three years. He has a high ceiling, but will need time to develop, although the situation at defensive end could see him tossed into the fray early. Noah Hickcox is a three-technique and five-technique defensive lineman who provides some versatility, but I’m not sure he has the physical tools to compete at the college level just yet. Boye Mafe is a similar story, with raw talent that the staff will need to develop, and I expect him to redshirt this season.

Next: Linebackers.