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Minnesota Football: Spring Position Previews - Defensive Backs

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The Gophers have talent at defensive back, but a scary lack of depth could hurt them during the season

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Leading up to Saturday’s spring game at TCF Bank Stadium, we’re breaking down each position group. Today, we close out our spring position previews with a look at a position in desperate need of warm bodies: Defensive back.

Key Departure(s): Damarius Travis, Jalen Myrick, KiAnte Hardin, and Ray Buford
Key Returner(s): Antoine Winfield, Jr., Antonio Shenault, Duke McGhee, Kunle Ayinde, Kiondre Thomas, Jacob Huff, Zo Craighton, and Coney Durr
Spring Enrollee(s): None
Fall Enrollee(s): Adam Beck, Ken Handy-Holly, and Justus Harris

I will miss Damarius Travis. He graduates having played in 53 games and started 23 of them during his career as a Gopher. Last season, after returning from a hamstring injury that cost him all but one game of the 2015 season, Travis led the team with 83 tackles and recorded five tackles for loss, four pass breakups, two interceptions, and one fumble recovery.

The Gophers also lose both starters at cornerback. Senior Jalen Myrick, who ran the fastest 40 time of any Big Ten draft prospect in the history of the NFL Combine, is all but certain to be playing on Sundays next season. Myrick played in 47 games over four seasons at Minnesota and started 21 of them. Last season, he recorded 41 tackles, 11 pass breakups, and one interception. KiAnte Hardin is the other loss at cornerback after being expelled. The Gophers’ secondary struggled mightily last season when Hardin wasn’t on the field. Despite missing five games due to suspension, Hardin finished with 39 tackles, two interceptions, and six pass breakups.

Ray Buford, a reserve cornerback, is also gone after being expelled and transferring to Arizona Western Community College. Buford played in seven games as a redshirt freshman, recording 16 tackles and three pass breakups.

Maurice Linguist has big shoes to fill

New defensive backs coach Maurice Linguist has the unenviable task of replacing former defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel. Under Sawvel, the Gophers have had at least one defensive back drafted in each of the last three NFL Drafts, not to mention the free agent signing of Briean Boddy-Calhoun to the Cleveland Browns last season. And according to S&P+, the Gophers’ pass defense has ranked in the Top 25 in the country the last two seasons, and has finished the reason ranked in the Top 50 in five of the last six seasons.

Linguist comes to Minnesota after spending a single season at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs ranked 103rd in the country in pass defense according to S&P+, allowing 281.5 passing yards per game. But Mississippi State did rank 35th in the country with 14 interceptions, and the Bulldogs’ defensive backs were responsible for half of them.

Prior to Mississippi State, he spent two years at Iowa State, where he served as defensive backs coach and defensive passing game coordinator. In his first season with the Cyclones, safety Kamari Cotton-Moya was named the Big 12’s Defensive Freshman of the Year and sophomore cornerback Nigel Tribune was a second-team All-Big 12 selection. In 2015, Linguist coached freshman cornerback Brian Peavy, who earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors and was a finalist for Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year.

The most common trend throughout Linguist’s coaching career has been interceptions. His defensive backs tend to rank in the top half of the country in creating turnovers. Although S&P+ has not been kind to their ability to defend the pass.

In terms of schemes and coverages? At Western Michigan, P.J. Fleck seemed to favor a lot of cover one and cover four, but I don’t know if he’ll place that much trust in a group of young cornerbacks short on experience. I know that both Fleck and defensive coordinator Robb Smith intend to run an aggressive-style defense, which puts a lot of pressure on the secondary if the offense can beat whatever blitz package Smith has called. Smith’s coverages at both Rutgers and Arkansas tended to be simplified to allow the defensive backs to play fast.

There is talent at the top. Just don’t look down.

The situation at cornerback is less than ideal. Junior Antonio Shenault is one of only three cornerbacks on the roster with actual game experience. The other two? Sophomores Zo Craighton and Coney Durr, although Durr suffered a torn ACL and torn meniscus during a strong performance in the Holiday Bowl (Fleck has said he expects him to be back for the fall, but we’ll see about that). Shenault played in 11 games and started five of them last season, recording 32 tackles and two pass breakups.

The fourth (and final) scholarship cornerback on the roster this spring is redshirt freshman Kiondre Thomas, who obviously hasn’t seen the field yet. But Thomas is a near lock to start at the cornerback spot opposite Shenault. Reports from spring practice regarding Thomas have been promising, but we won’t know for sure what the Gophers have in the inexperienced redshirt freshman until he sees game action.

Don’t expect incoming freshman cornerback Justus Harris to redshirt this fall — but that might not necessarily be a bad thing. The Georgia native’s senior highlights show a ball-hawking cover corner who smothers receivers downfield in press coverage. He'll need to bulk up a bit at the college level, but he reminds me a lot of Eric Murray. Adam Beck is another incoming freshman defensive back who could see the field, as he has the versatility to play cornerback or safety.

The safety position is in better shape, but not by much. The return of sophomore Antoine Winfield, Jr. is huge. As a freshman, Winfield was spectacular. He started nine games for the Gophers last season, finishing the season with 52 tackles, three pass breakups, one fumble recovery, and one interception returned for a touchdown against Maryland. Winfield has a bright future ahead of him as a Gopher.

Opposite Winfield, senior Duke McGhee is a good bet to start at the other safety position, if he can stop being ejected for targeting. McGhee started seven games last season and finished fourth on the team in tackles with 54, while nabbing one interception and recording three pass breakups. Kunle Ayinde is also back for his senior year, despite a rocky start to last season that saw him benched after three games. But don’t forget about that pick six against Washington State — I don’t care if he stepped out of bounds before the end zone or not. That was awesome.

This spring, P.J. Fleck has reserved a lot of praise for junior safety Jacob Huff.

"I like Jacob Huff," Fleck said. "All he does is make plays. This was our ninth practice, and every single play that kid has made -- an interception, he’s knocked down the ball -- his hands are around the football. He’s instinctive, he’s smart, It’s important to him.

"We talk about all four areas of life being important to you -- academically, athletically, socially, spiritually -- and all four areas are important to that kid. And he makes everybody else around him better. That’s what I loved. I loved seeing that. That makes me know that the culture continues to grow inside guys when that happens."

Huff has played sparingly over the last two seasons, compiling seven tackles through 21 games. But that could change if he continues to catch the attention of the head coach in practice. When Winfield has shifted to the nickel position in spring practices, Huff has been the first one in at the safety spot, alongside McGhee.

Another name to keep an eye on is sophomore Troy Dipre. He transferred from Kent State after his freshman season and has figured into the rotation at safety this spring.

It’s no secret that the coaching staff is excited about incoming freshman Ken Handy-Holly. He is a hard-hitting safety who can lay the wood, with the ability to track the football well and make plays on the ball. There is very little chance that he redshirts this fall. If he blossoms into the player most expect him to be, Handy-Holly and Winfield will make a formidable tandem at safety for the next couple years.