Last week, I went through the fairly straightforward process of projecting the Gophers’ offensive depth chart for 2019. Looking at the other side of the ball, the real fun begins. Minnesota loses four starters on defense — outside linebacker Blake Cashman, defensive tackles Gary Moore and O.J. Smith, and safety Jacob Huff — and will see a number of fresh faces from the last two recruiting classes begin to crack the two-deep.
Here is my best educated guess at how things shake out.
Weak-Side Defensive End
Starter(s): Boye Mafe
Backup(s): Mayan Ahanotu
Overview: Mafe earned the first start of his career against Georgia Tech in the bowl game and promptly had a breakout game, leading all defensive linemen with six tackles. Expect to see a lot more of Mafe next season, especially if Carter Coughlin moves back to linebacker. Ahanotu saw limited action last season as a freshman in his redshirt season, but was the recipient of the coveted “Defensive Steak Award” for his work on the scout team.
Starter(s): Jamaal Teague
Backup(s): Rashad Cheney
Overview: This is the position I’m least confident about. Not in terms of talent, mind you. Just in my prognostication skills, because this position group will benefit from an influx of talent and it is difficult to predict which of the newcomers will stake their claim to a spot on the two-deep.
Gary Moore and O.J. Smith are both gone, leaving sizable holes on the defensive line. Teague was a freshman forced to burn his redshirt last season, so hopefully he can build on that experience. Fleck made it clear in his signing day presser that the defensive linemen in this latest recruiting class will be expected to contribute immediately, and Cheney is chief among the freshman capable of making an impact early in his college career. Otherwise, senior stalwart Sam Renner could also figure into the rotation after being a key contributor last fall.
(Editor’s Note: I originally had Royal Silver listed as the starter here, but around the same time I published the post, news broke that Silver is leaving the program due to medical reasons.)
Starter(s): Keonte Schad
Backup(s): Micah Dew-Treadway
Overview: With how hard head coach P.J. Fleck and co. fought to keep Schad in the weeks and days leading up to the early signing period in December, I’ll be disappointed if the JUCO defensive tackle is not a significant contributor next season. He has the potential to be a difference maker for the Gophers and a disruptive force at the line of scrimmage.
Dew-Treadway, a grad transfer from Notre Dame, will provide key depth at the position.
Strong-Side Defensive End
Starter(s): Winston DeLattiboudere
Backup(s): Esezi Otomewo
Overview: There was a decent amount of offseason buzz surrounding Otomewo entering his redshirt freshman season, but he ended up having a quiet year. I expect DeLattiboudere, who has started at least five games in each of the last three seasons, will continue to hold down the starting spot here. But hopefully Otomewo can challenge for it.
Starter(s): Carter Coughlin
Backup(s): Thomas Rush
Overview: I could be wrong here, but I think we’ll see Coughlin move back to his original position at outside linebacker for his senior season. That might sound crazy considering Coughlin was a unanimous second-team All-Big Ten selection as a defensive end, but don’t forget that his transition to rush end was made out of necessity. I think the Gophers have bolstered their ranks at defensive end with enough talent now to allow Coughlin to return home. Don’t think that means we’ve seen the end of him rushing the passer, though.
Rush was impressive enough as a special teams contributor last season to warrant burning his redshirt as a true freshman. I recall back when he signed with Minnesota that the coaches loved his speed and athleticism. He can be a sideline-to-sideline linebacker.
Starter(s): Thomas Barber
Backup(s): Mariano Sori-Marin
Overview: Barber will finish out his career at Minnesota as a three-year starter at middle linebacker. Like Rush, Sori-Marin was impressive enough last season as a special teams contributor to warrant burning his redshirt as a true freshman.
Starter(s): Kamal Martin
Backup(s): Braelen Oliver
Overview: Martin seems like the least heralded of the Gophers’ linebacker, but he has been a consistent contributor since he was a freshman. I don’t expect that to change. Oliver seems to be cut from the same mold as Martin, who was a quarterback and safety in high school. Oliver played running back, wide receiver, linebacker, and safety. He is a versatile athlete and a physical defender with the athleticism to drop back into coverage.
Starter(s): Coney Durr
Backup(s): Terell Smith
Overview: Smith is more than capable of starting, as he proved last season, but it is tough to ignore how Durr played once Joe Rossi took over as defensive coordinator. With how much the Gophers shuffle around the secondary, a “starting spot” is very much a formality here. Expect to see lots of Durr and Smith in pass coverage next season.
Starter(s): Antoine Winfield, Jr.
Backup(s): Jordan Howden
Overview: I have no doubt Winfield will be ready to go when Minnesota opens the season against South Dakota State. But will he make it past the Gophers’ date with Maryland on Oct. 26? Let’s hope so. The third time is the charm. Hopefully. Howden was thrown into the fire as a true freshman last season when Winfield went down, but played well enough down the stretch to earn a scholarship.
Starter(s): Benny Sapp III
Backup(s): C.J. Smith
Overview: Gone is consistent contributor Jacob Huff and this is where the lack of depth at safety begins to show. But I expect Fleck and defensive coordinator Joe Rossi to get creative amid the uncertainty. Sapp, who saw his recruitment slow to a crawl due to multiple knee injuries suffered in high school, played in all 13 games last season and seems primed for a bigger role in the secondary this fall. Smith redshirted and did not see the field at all.
Starter(s): Chris Williamson
Backups: Solomon Brown
Referred to as the “money” position by Fleck, this is where Williamson came into his own at the end of last season after a slow start to the year. We’ll see if he can produce a whole season’s worth of that kind of play in the fall. Brown, who will be on campus in the spring as a freshman, has the tools and versatility to thrive in this role, as well.
Starter(s): Kiondre Thomas
Backup(s): Kelvin Clemmons
Overview: I was tempted to give Clemmons the starting nod here, but I’ll give Thomas the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think the staff brought in Clemmons to warm the bench. I believe he will push Thomas and the other cornerbacks for playing time. Fleck has talked about the need for a physical cornerback, and Clemmons offers exactly that. The knock against Thomas is the injury bug, as he has missed some time in each of the last two seasons due to injury. But when he is on the field, Thomas is a formidable defender.