In the eyes of Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, the Gophers’ season opener against Michigan on Saturday, Oct. 24, is a starting point in more ways than one.
Since the former defensive line coach was promoted to defensive coordinator in November 2018 after the midseason firing of Robb Smith, the Gophers are 14-3, and last season ranked ninth nationally in passing defense (184.2 passing yards allowed per game), 23rd in rushing defense (122.4 rushing yards allowed per game), and tied for 37th in scoring defense (22.5 points allowed per game). But as impressive as the defensive turnaround at Minnesota has been under Rossi, navigating the 2020 season may be his greatest achievement yet.
Seven defensive starters from a season ago are no longer campus, and four of them — safety Antoine Winfield Jr., linebacker Kamal Martin, rush end Carter Coughlin, and cornerback Chris Williamson — heard their names called in last April’s NFL Draft. To make matters worse, the Gophers lost nearly all of spring practice when the NCAA shut down team activities due to COVID-19, and fall camp has been anything but business as usual.
Rossi says that the emphasis since as far back as the summer has been “investing in the whole group” on the defensive side of the ball, recognizing that the uncertainty of COVID-19 could mean a different combination of players are available or unavailable each week.
“That’s just part of 2020,” Rossi says, matter-of-factly.
At linebacker, where Rossi is also the position coach, the Gophers are especially young and inexperienced without last season’s starters, Martin and Thomas Barber. Junior Mariano Sori-Marin has one starting spot locked down, but he is the clear leader of a linebacker room loaded with uncertainty. Rossi praises the group’s work ethic and preparation, but stresses that there is a maturation process for the true and redshirt freshmen linebackers.
“I expect to see them having a starting point at the beginning of the season. That’s not the end line, when we start the season. That is the starting line. Then if you watch them go throughout the course of the season, my expectation is you’re going to see a tremendous amount of growth,” Rossi explains. “Me knowing their work ethic and their character, I have high expectations for what they’ll become. But there is a lot of work that needs to be done from now ‘til then.”
In the secondary, Minnesota needs to replace Winfield at safety and Williamson at slot cornerback. Senior Justus Harris and redshirt freshman Solomon Brown have been in competition for that nickel position since the spring, and Rossi believes the two each bring a different skill set to the position but both possess the physicality that the role calls for.
“Obviously Justus is the more veteran guy. He’s one of the standards for us in terms of what it looks like in terms of ‘How,’ in terms of toughness, technique, work ethic,” Rossi says. “And Sol has really made huge strides since the start of camp.”
Sophomore Tyler Nubin is the favorite to step in for Winfield, but Rossi is quick to quash any comparisons between the two. Comparisons are, after all, the thief of joy.
“We’re not going to worry about Winfield when we’re looking at Tyler Nubin. We’re going to worry about Tyler Nubin. And Tyler Nubin is a really talented football player. Tyler Nubin has coverage ability. He has physical ability in terms of playing in the run game. And so we’re very excited about his upside and his future. He’s one of our hardest workers. I know you guys haven’t been able see it, but take my word on it. When he practices, he’s at 100% all the time.
“We think [Nubin] has a tremendously high ceiling. And we have high expectations for him. And he has high expectations for himself. But he’s just got to be the best version of him every day, and then look to get better and change his best every day. But we’re very excited about that.”
On the defensive line, Minnesota loses Coughlin, defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere, and defensive tackle Sam Renner. All eyes will be on junior Boye Mafe, who is taking over at rush end for Coughlin and earned a spot on Bruce Feldman’s “College Football Freaks List” in July.
Aside from his obvious physical gifts, Rossi see’s Mafe’s maturity as an asset.
“He is now to the point where he is kind of on the back end, so to speak, of his career. Any time that happens, you’ve had experience, you’ve had mistakes, you’ve had failings. You’ve had an opportunity to respond and grow,” Rossi explains. “Boye has been a guy that has played a role the last two years and now obviously that role is going to expand.”
Gopher fans won’t have to wait long to see what he can do in that expanded role.