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Gopher Defensive Backs, Upgrade or Downgrade in 2019?

So many familiar names in the defensive backfield, will this be an improvement over 2018?

Fresno State v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

And finally, after basically assuming all position groups are an upgrade (with one exception), we come to the final grouping. Will the secondary, after a solid 2018 season, be an upgrade in 2019?


Starter: Coney Durr (CB), Jacob Huff (S), Jordan Howden (S), Terell Smith (CB)
Depth: Antonio Shenault (CB), Kiondre Thomas (CB), Chris Williamson (CB), Ben Sapp III (S)

The Gopher pass defense in 2018 was pretty good, finishing 5th in the Big Ten in passing S&P. And SURPRISE...most of the secondary returns. Who is gone? Jacob Huff started all 13 games at safety last year and Shenault played the first 7 before getting injured.

Jacob Huff was the consistent leader of the secondary being the lone senior on the team making all 13 starts and accumulating 93 tackles with 2 picks.

The real blow to this secondary came when Antoine Winfield Jr. was lost for the season in week 4 after also getting injured in week 4 the prior year. Insert Howden into the starting lineup who struggled early but really improved throughout the season, along with the rest of secondary.

Durr was playing his first full season after injury, having a really nice season with 9 starts and 2 interceptions. Smith was playing as a true freshman, where he started very strong and seemed to hit a freshman wall.

Shenault, Williamson and Thomas were key reserves (when healthy) at corner and overall this secondary was pretty solid after being a pretty big question mark heading into 2018.


Starter: Coney Durr (CB), Antoine Winfield Jr. (S), Jordan Howden (S), Terell Smith (CB), Chris Williamson (nickle)
Depth: Kiondre Thomas (CB), Justus Harris (CB), CJ Smith (CB), Benjamin St-Juste (CB), Philip Howard (CB), Calvin Swenson (S), Benny Sapp III
Freshmen: Tyler Nubin (S), Solomon Brown (S)par

This is a unit that I’m very comfortable with, both in terms of talent and depth.

Starting corners are likely to be Durr and Smith. Both have showed potential to be very good corners. Durr’s progress was derailed by ripping apart his knee while Smith just hit a freshman wall but has the tools & size to be elite. Backing them are are a couple experienced corners in Williamson and Thomas. Williamson played in 11 games last year and will likely be your starting nickle back while Thomas has played in 19 games with 6 starts over his career and is certainly more than capable of playing at any point throughout the season. And don’t forget about St-Juste, the Michigan graduate transfer who has 3 years of eligibility.

At safety, the big news is that Winfield Jr. is back. Assuming he is fully healthy, he is an elite safety and the leader of this defensive backfield. Jordan Howden was thrust into starting at safety as a true freshman last year when Winfield went down. His consistency is probably the biggest question mark in the secondary. Next in line is probably the true freshman, Nubin. One of the highlights of the 2019 recruiting class, I suspect he’ll get some time in the non-conference to see how he fares at game speed.

And after all of those names, you still have a few guys who have game experience or redshirted freshman. One should expect they’ve improved over the offseason and will provide plenty of depth in the secondary. CJ Smith is a redshirt freshman, Harris has game experience, Philip Howard is an intriguing talent after moving from WR, Sapp is one who once is full strength could end up being a major contributor and Calving Swenson participated in all 13 games a year ago, he has also earned himself a scholarship.

Upgrade / Downgrade

Comparing 2018 to 2019 with this unit is basically swapping out Huff with Winfield, assuming improvement from the many returners and potentially getting some help from one of a few newcomers.

Overall, this unit has to be an improvement. The real strength here is the depth. This might be the deepest secondary I can recall for the Gophers. I feel so much more comfortable that if one or even two guys are lost for a portion of the season, there is someone who can step in to be a solid replacement. Maybe the biggest slam dunk of an improvement (as I intentionally mix my sports metaphors).


Secondary...Upgrade or downgrade?

This poll is closed

  • 88%
    Upgrade - welcome back Mr. Winfield and new faces
    (267 votes)
  • 10%
    Neutral - I’m going take it easy with my excitement
    (32 votes)
  • 0%
    Downgrade - Huff was key and there’s no guarantee
    (2 votes)
301 votes total Vote Now