Two words have been synonymous with the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ new-look defense this offseason: “Youth” and “inexperience.” And that youth and inexperience was very much on display in the Gophers’ 49-24 season-opening loss to Michigan.
Why are so many Minnesota defenders young and inexperienced? Well, recruiting tells the tale, and to get the full picture we need to break down the last five recruiting classes.
The highlighted players are no longer on the roster:
- Kiondre Thomas transferred to Kansas State this offseason
- Antoine Winfield Jr. is in the NFL
- Ken Handy-Holly transferred to Auburn after his freshman season
- Adam Beck transferred to Texas Tech after his freshman season
- Rey Estes attempted to transfer to Illinois after his redshirt freshman season, but instead ended up enrolling at Riverside City College in California
- Kelvin Clemmons transferred to Houston after a spring semester at Minnesota
Minnesota has certainly reaped the benefits of the Kill/Claeys coaching staff recruiting Winfield and Coney Durr, who is currently starting at cornerback for the Gophers as a fifth-year senior. But the attrition from that 2017 class — which Fleck and co. had less than a month to cobble together after his hiring — is tough to stomach. Those are your redshirt juniors or senior defensive backs in 2020. Justus Harris did get the starting nod at slot corner against Michigan, but that was his first start in four years at Minnesota and he was ineffective at best.
The 2018 class is more of a mixed bag. Jordan Howden in his third year as a starter. Terell Smith started nine games as a true freshman but has since slipped into a reserve role behind Durr and Benjamin St.-Juste. Benny Sapp III has been limited to special teams.
Imagine where Minnesota would be had the coaching staff not been able to sign Howden late in the 2018 recruiting cycle or convince St.-Juste to come to Minnesota as a grad transfer.
I think the 2016 linebacker class speaks for itself. Unfortunately, I think the 2017 class also speaks for itself, but for very different reasons. Trenton Guthrie was a Western Michigan commit Fleck brought over to Minnesota after his hiring, but he has not seen a minute of game action since he stepped on campus. So that 2017 linebacker class is a total loss.
2018 is another mixed bag. Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has spoken highly of Mariano Sori-Marin, but his development has been slow. Braelen Oliver was electric last season blitzing the quarterback, but he has been sidelined due to a lower leg injury suffered in spring practice. Thomas Rush has transitioned to rush end, where he struggled against Michigan. Josh Aune is a special teams contributor who saw the first meaningful linebacker snaps of his career on Saturday.
I think it’s fair to question the coaching staff’s linebacker evals at this point, although it is worth pointing out that the 2017 and 2018 recruiting classes were signed when Robb Smith was defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. He also had a hand in recruiting James Gordon and Donald Willis. They’re already behind the eight ball thanks to that 2017 linebacker class. Rossi is going to have to earn his paycheck with this group.
Fleck was critical of this position group in his postgame comments Saturday:
“[The linebacker spot opposite Mariano Sori-Marin] is up for grabs, and if somebody would have been able to drive forward and take that job in that four week training camp we had, because again, there’s a lot of unknowns with Braelen Oliver out. That was hard because we knew it was Braelen and Mariano and then [Braelen is injured], and everybody else who was behind him hasn’t played yet.
And so when you look at who is the most ready and who can be able to learn as we go and who is going to make the least amount of mistakes. Who is going to limit the bleeding? Whose mistakes aren’t going to be as catastrophic? And that’s how that is.
You might be looking at me saying like, well that’s not a great way to make a decision. Exactly. Because they’re really young and inexperienced but times like this and games like this are going to help those guys get a lot better. And we put a lot of them in there tonight, whether it was Josh Aune, Donald Willis, or Cody Lindenberg.
Woof. I think you can see why Fleck and co. have loaded up on defensive linemen in their last two recruiting classes, including bringing in Micah Dew-Treadway as a grad transfer.
The highlighted players no longer on the roster:
- Tai’yon Devers and Merrick Jackson graduated
- TaMarion Johnson transferred to Arizona Western Community College
- Austin Schirck left the program as a true freshman
- Royal Silver and Alex Reigelsperger medically retired
- Malcolm Robinson entered the transfer portal in the spring
- Mayan Ahanotu transferred to Rutgers this spring
- Abi N-Okonji transferred to James Madison after his redshirt freshman season
- Melle Kreuder went back to Germany
The 2017 class produced two starters on the defensive line for this season, which is a victory considering how the other position groups on defense fared in that class. But that 2018 class hurts. Not much can you do about Alex Reigelsperger, who had a medical condition that forced him to retire from the sport. But the coaching staff missed on Mayan Ahanotu and Abi N-Okonji. Jamaal Teague has been part of the rotation at defensive tackle, but did not dress for Saturday’s season opener and is not expected to play this season while he deals with a personal matter.
So that 2018 class is a wash as far as 2020 is concerned.
So who is to blame? Is there even blame to be assigned? No coaching staff is going to retain, develop, and graduate every recruit they sign. That’s a simple fact. But at a program like Minnesota, the margin for error is smaller, and every miss in recruiting hurts. Injuries, which every program has to deal with, can exacerbate the problem. And a program like Minnesota certainly can’t weather losing nearly an entire recruiting class. So the 2020 Gophers will take their lumps, and we can only hope this is a bump in the road en route to greener pastures.