Moving on to the defense and we’ll start with the guys up front. This group is very deep and talented on the interior, but thin on the edges. Making this upgrade/downgrade call more challenging.
Starter: Hendrick Ekpe, Steven Richardson, Scott Ekpe, Gaelin Elmore
Depth: Merrick Jackson, Youshub Timms, Andrew Stelter, Tai’yon Devers, Winston DeLattibourdere
Two seniors and two juniors started along the defensive line most of last season with a deep tackle rotation and some unexpected young contributions at end.
Steven Richardson had his breakout season in 2016 and was not only our best defensive lineman, but one of the best in the Big Ten. As a junior he had 11 tackles for loss and 7 sacks, 2 fumbles forced (and recovered) on his way to earning 3rd team All-Big Ten honors. He was quite disruptive, getting into offensive backfields on a regular basis.
Gaelin Elmore, the other junior, played in all 13 games last year starting 6 games at defensive end. He recorded 4 TFLs, 1.5 sacks and recovered 3 fumbles. He has since moved on, transferring to East Carolina.
The two seniors who contributed and played quite a bit were the Ekpe brothers. The redshirt senior, Scott, started 10 games alongside Richardson in the interior. Hendrick started 11 games where he contributed 7.5 TFLs and 3.5 sacks. Both have expired their eligibility after solid careers.
Winston DeLattiboudere as a redshirt freshman and true freshman Tai’Yon Devers were both significant contributors at defensive end. DeLattibourdere started 5 while contributing in all 13 games while Devers played in 11 games making a couple highlight reel sacks.
At tackle the primary depth guys were Andrew Stetler, Yoshube Timms - a senior - and the JUCO transfer Merrick Jackson. This position was much deeper than it was in 2015 and was consistently reliable in 2016.
Starter: Tai’yon Devers, Steven Richardson, Merrick Jackson, Winston DeLattibourdere
Depth: Andrew Stelter, Gary Moore, Carter Coughlin, Jerry Gibson
Freshmen: Malcolm Robinson, Austin Schrick, Noah Hickcox, Esezi Otomewo, Boye Mafe, Nate Umlor
Moving from 2016 to 2017 the Gophers return a lot at tackle but have a lot of snaps to replace at end.
At tackle Richardson and Jackson are likely to be one of the better tackle tandems in the Big Ten. Richardson has the potential to be drafted, his height being the biggest obstacle to that becoming a reality. And Jackson will use his massive frame to clock up the middle and be a solid option alongside Richardson. Then behind them you have two quality guys who have all contributed over the last few years. Stetler and Gary Moore are guys I’d be very comfortable as starters, but instead are going to be part of the DT rotation.
At end, DeLattibourdere, with 5 starts, is the most experienced end on the roster and the most likely to be starting. Devers was a pass rushing specialist last year who made an early impact and really is a stud around the edge. His challenge will really be to play the whole position and be as valuable on rushing downs as he is on passing downs. Because of this question on rushing downs he may cede the starting role to one of our linebackers who will actually be starting at end. Carter Coughlin is most likely that guy with Devers in on obvious passing downs.
Overall experience and depth is really lacking here. Jerry Gibson is a junior, who will see the field, but hasn’t really done much over his career thus far. The former TE played in 4 games last year and made just 2 tackles. After that it is a boatload of true freshmen who will be redshirting unless they show that they cannot be kept off the field.
For this position group I probably should have split it up into DT and DE previews. I would say that tackle is going to be an upgrade while end is going to be a downgrade. If I had to pick one, I would say a slight downgrade overall.
Steven Richardson is going to be one of the best tackles in the conference, and as I said, I have complete confidence in all three of the other guys in the rotation. End really scares me though and there is lot to prove for those guys.