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Minnesota Football: Benjamin St.-Juste was the missing piece of the Gophers’ secondary

The Michigan transfer solidified an elite secondary last season

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Outback Bowl - Minnesota v Auburn Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Benjamin St-.Juste took a bit of an unusual path to Minnesota. The former four-star prospect from Montreal originally signed with Michigan out of high school, enrolling early in the spring of 2017. He saw action as a true freshman, playing in 12 games as primarily a special teams contributor, before missing all of 2018 with a nagging hamstring injury. The following spring, Michigan announced that he was medically retiring from football.

This is where things get weird.

St.-Juste publicly disputed that he was retiring, and Michigan was forced to clarify that he was “not medically cleared to play.” Having already earned a degree in 2.5 years, St.-Juste opted instead to grad transfer with three years of immediate eligibility. When he announced via Twitter that he was entering the transfer portal, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi was alerted by one of Minnesota’s defensive quality control assistants. Rossi, driving on the highway, pulled over and sent St.-Juste a private message on Twitter to call him and set up a campus visit.

Two weeks later, he was a Gopher.

St.-Juste has not spoken much about his break with Michigan, but his play on the field for Minnesota has done plenty of talking. Four games into the 2019 season, St.-Juste had usurped a starting cornerback role from Kiondre Thomas, who transferred to Kansas State this offseason. Paired with All-Big Ten Honorable Mention defensive back Coney Durr, he has gifted the Gophers with one of the best cornerback tandems in the Big Ten.

What makes him such an effective cornerback? His size, for starters. St.-Juste stands at 6’3” and weighs in at 200 lbs., which is the ideal size and length for an NFL cornerback. NFL scouts covet those measurables in a cornerback because it allows them to match up better with bigger, taller, stronger wide receivers. Take Auburn wide receiver Seth Williams, for example. He is listed at 6’3” and 211 lbs. and was matched up against St.-Juste early in the Outback Bowl.

On their first offensive possession of the game, the Tigers were set up inside the red zone after a Tanner Morgan interception. On 3rd & 4 from the Minnesota six-yard line, Auburn quarterback Bo Nix tried to make the back shoulder throw to Williams and take advantage of his height in the end zone. But St.-Juste was with Williams every step of the way in man coverage, putting him in perfect position to use his length to break up the pass.

His size also works to his advantage against smaller wide receivers. Against Penn State, St.-Juste was lined up in single coverage against K.J. Hamler, who is listed as 5’9”. St.-Juste is lined up inside of Hamler, anticipating a quick slant. Instead, Hamler slow plays it and fakes the slant before breaking to the corner of the end zone on a fade. St.-Juste breaks with him and then turns his head when he sees Hamler going up for the ball, batting it away.

St.-Juste tied for the team lead in pass break-ups last season with 10, and that is a credit to his fluid hips and physical play. He does not have elite speed, but he is agile enough to turn his hips and run with receivers when they make cuts in their routes. Against Purdue last season, St.-Juste was frequently lined up in single coverage against David Bell, the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year and a first-team AP Freshman All-American. The Boilermakers tried to attack him with slants in short yardage situations, but Bell could never seem to shake St.-Juste.

Unfortunately, Purdue figured out not to challenge St.-Juste and instead set their sights on Kiondre Thomas, who proved much more vulnerable in pass coverage.

One other aspect of St.-Juste’s game I want to highlight is his instincts, or rather his ability to read and react without hesitation. He very rarely overpursues and almost always takes efficient angles to the ball, which is critical for a defensive back who lacks elite speed.

On this first down play against Iowa, St.-Juste is in man coverage against Tyrone Tracy, who motions pre-snap to the opposite side of the formation. The Hawkeyes run a play-action bootleg with Tracy coming back across the formation, hoping to spring him for a big gain down the sideline. But St.-Juste is never fooled, sticking with Tracy and taking a perfect angle to make the open field tackle, dropping him behind the line of scrimmage.

The Gophers ranked ninth in the country in passing defense (184.2 passing yards allowed per game) and 22nd in passing efficiency defense last season, and the emergence of St.-Juste was a big part of that. And with both him and Durr returning this fall to lead a secondary replacing two starters, Minnesota’s defense will lean on them now more than ever.