The secondary for the Gophers last year was going to be a unit that lacked depth and was going to struggle to replace someone the caliber of Jalen Myrick. Turned out that it was tougher than expected with additional transfers and injuries, putting a lot of pressure on inexperienced guys to man these important positions.
Turns out that the passing defense gave up less than 180 yards passing per game, though that could be attributed to poorer rush defense as much as anything else. But it is time to take a look at who is returning, who was lost and if this unit will be improved in 2018.
WHO IS GONE
The good news here is that no cornerbacks were lost to graduation. Zo Craighton transferred in the offseason, but he really played sparingly in 2017 due to injuries anyway. His roster spot is gone, but his 2017 contribution was so minimal that it is hard to count this as a major loss. A number of defensive backs who were primarily safeties, forced to play some corner last year are also gone. But it was a patchwork secondary at times and those guys are going to be covered in the safeties updgrade/downgrade post.
Everyone else returns, which still is not a lot of experience.
Antonio Shenault is the lone senior corner on the roster. He started 10 games last seasons with 16 career starts under his belt. Shenault is likely to start, particularly early in the season. He finished 4th on the team in tackles a year ago and had 4 pass breakups to his credit.
Also in the running to start is redshirt sophomore, Kiondre Thomas who played in 9 games last season, starting six of them.
Coney Durr spent most of 2017 getting back to full strength after a late 2016 tear of his ACL. He did see some action in 2017 but it was clear that he was not ready to be playing once again at this level. Perhaps he is far enough removed from his injury that Durr will once again be full speed and ready for Big Ten action.
Justus Harris was forced into action as a true freshman last season. He played in 3 games, starting at Iowa. Not likely to be a main guy in the defensive backfield, but will see the field.
WHO IS ADDED
With just 2 guys returning who has seen significant action, there is ample opportunity for new faces to earn a lot of snaps in 2018.
Most notably is Chris Williamson, the Florida transfer who will be in the mix for starting at corner. Williamson is a redshirt junior so he’ll get 2 years to play in a Gopher uniform and it is expected that he’ll be a major contributor. Healthy and ready to play after having to sit a year, Williamson is very intriguing.
After that it is redshirt and true freshmen vying for early playing time.
Rey Estes is the lone redshirt freshmen. Recruited as an athletic quarterback into the program, he has settled in as a corner and was able to keep his redshirt last season while learning the trade.
Terell Smith is the true freshman most likely to see the field and possibly for most of the year. At 6’1” and with elite speed, the Georgia native has some tools to be an excellent corner for the Gophers. This kid is one freshman to be excited about.
CJ Smith is the other freshman corner coming into the program. This Smith also has very good size and I’m sure you will see him in at least 4 games this year, but assuming decent health I bet he will maintain his redshirt status.
And the last name I will mention is Jordan Howden, a walk-on from Las Vegas. Howden is making a name for himself this fall and reports from GopherIllustrated indicate that he may be earning himself some playing time with the scholarship kids.
Is this an upgrade? I think so. Basically every corner who played last year is back and you add Williamson, Smith and Smith. I think you went from 2 actual corners to 4 or 5 who can play the position at this level. This unit has a ways to go before it is one that we can boast about, but the depth is greatly improved and there is some young talent here.