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Minnesota Football: Spring Position Preview - Defensive Backs

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Gophers’ secondary will struggle with a lack of depth this season.

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

The Minnesota Golden Gophers will take on the Golden Gophers of Minnesota in a spring game showdown at noon 6 p.m. on Saturday Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium, weather permitting. Leading up to the game, we’ll be taking a look at the outlook for each position group.

Key Departure(s): Duke McGhee, Kunle Ayinde, Zo Craighton, and Ken Handy-Holly
Key Returner(s): Antoine Winfield, Jr., Jacob Huff, Antonio Shenault, Kiondre Thomas, Chris Williamson, Coney Durr, Justus Harris, Adam Beck, and Rey Estes
Early Enrollee(s): None

The Gophers will miss Duke McGhee and, as maligned as he was at times, Kunle Ayinde, who was often the glue that held the secondary together last season — for better or worse — as the unit was decimated by injuries. Zo Craighton seemed prime to step up at cornerback before his season was cut short by injury. He ultimately decided to transfer, as did promising freshman safety Ken Handy-Holly. Those two transfers will certainly further strain a position group that has struggled with depth issues the past couple seasons.

But I do believe the cornerback position is in better shape than you might think.

Redshirt junior Chris Williamson, who sat out last season after transferring from Florida, is believed to be the frontrunner for one of the starting cornerback positions next season. Unfortunately, fans may have to wait until the fall for their first glimpse of Williamson in action. Both Williamson and redshirt sophomore safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. seem to have been held out of spring practice for precautionary reasons.

Even with Williamson sidelined, the Gophers have two experienced cornerbacks in senior Antonio Shenault and redshirt sophomore Kiondre Thomas. In his press conference at the start of spring practice, head coach P.J. Fleck singled out Thomas as a player who has turned a corner this offseason, so expectations are high for him heading into next season. Shenault, as a veteran in the secondary, will move around and play cornerback, safety, and nickel.

Junior Coney Durr and sophomore Justus Harris both struggled last season at cornerback, with the former being hobbled as he recovered from offseason ACL surgery. But Durr is believed to be close to 100 percent this spring, and Harris will benefit from his trial by fire as a true freshman. Redshirt freshman Rey Estes is an intriguing wild card, as the coaching staff was very tempted to burn his redshirt last season but were ultimately able to preserve it. He has reportedly been very impressive in practice, so we’ll see if he can translate that to the field and give the Gophers some much-needed depth at cornerback.

At safety, the situation is much more dire. We all know that Winfield has one starting spot locked up and the other likely belongs to senior Jacob Huff, who recorded three interceptions last season. But beyond Winfield and Huff... Don’t look down. With the transfer of Handy-Holly, the Gophers’ top reserves are walk-on redshirt sophomore Calvin Swenson and redshirt freshman Adam Beck. That’s not good. Minnesota will have the benefit of some versatility in the incoming class of freshman defensive backs, but leaning too much on true freshmen can lead to disaster.

Next: Special Teams