Defensive tackle has been a strength of the Gopher defense over the last couple seasons, primarily due to Steven Richardson being an elite and regular fixture in the middle. Richardson has graduated and is fighting to make an NFL roster, what will the Gopher defensive tackles look like in 2018? Will there be a dropoff in production?
WHO IS GONE
As mentioned, gone is Steven Richardson. The Illinois native was a disruptive force for the Gophers starting 44 games, recording 28.5 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks over his Gopher career. Certainly one of the biggest losses from the 2017 roster, Richardson will be difficult to replace.
But he isn’t the only loss here. Merrick Jackson had just 2 seasons as a Gopher, but the JUCO transfer played in 24 games, starting seven and was a part of the regular DT rotation. And Andrew Stetler saw his participation increase over his four years to the point where he was also a regular contributor his final two years. Twelve career starts and participated in 50 over his Gopher career.
One career starter and two guys who were absolutely providing meaningful snaps as regular contributors leaves a pretty sizable hole at this position. Having four guys rotate at defensive tackle has been pretty standard for Minnesota, three of the four need to be replaced.
Primarily Gary Moore is the key returner here. As one of the four regulars last year who started 7 games, Moore is almost certainly going to be starting at one of the tackle positions. He really broke out as a junior going from a player with some promise as a freshman to a guy who could be counted on to contribute.
The next returner with any experience is sophomore Nate Umlor who was thrown into action last year as a true freshman, starting 7 games. Now with some added size, Umlor will move to the interior and should be part of the rotation.
If you consider guys who were on the roster last year but unable to play due to transfer rules or redshirting, we have just those two returners at this position. That’s a little scary, but before we fret too much, lets take a look at who was added.
WHO IS ADDED
Last year the Gophers had two transfers sitting out and were able to redshirt two of their freshmen.
OJ Smith is the most prominent name for new guys you will see on the field. Smith is an Alabama transfer who will have 2 years to play for the Gophers. He is currently carrying 320 lbs on his 6’2” frame and should be huge in the middle of the defensive line. In his first two seasons at Bama, he contributed very little. Gopher fans hope that with a year to acclimate and mature, he’ll be starting alongside Moore and his ability to be a major contributor going to be very important to the success of this unit in 2018.
Also redshirting last year was Royal Silver, a transfer in from Iowa Western CC. Silver also has two years to play in a Gopher uniform and I would expect that he will be part of the DT rotation this year. Very difficult to project just how much he’ll be able to contribute.
The two freshmen who redshirted last year were Noah Hickcox and Malcolm Robinson. Robinson comes into his redshirt freshman year at 300 lbs already while Hickcox is up to 285. Among these two freshmen and Silver, one or two will probably have to play.
Last but not least is Elijah Teague, the only true freshman joining the team. Technically he’s the only addition to the roster, but one of several who have yet to play a snap. Teague is a 6’3”, 305 lb freshman who was one of the top defensive commits in the 2018 class. He has the size to play immediately but I predict you’ll see Teague play the 4-game maximum and retain his redshirt status.
Losing three of your top four players at this position, one of them with a shot at making an NFL roster, is guaranteeing that this unit is a downgrade. Even if you have an Alabama transfer, unless he starts dominating the Big Ten there is just no way to view this any differently as we sit here in late July.
To be an upgrade, or even neutral, Smith would have to be dominant and a couple other guys would need to step into key roles in the rotation. I’m not overly concerned about this unit, it very well may be the weakest unit on what I expect to be a solid defense, but I’m not concerned.