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Minnesota Football: Taking stock of the Gopher defense by position group

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Time to evaluate and assess at the midpoint of the 2020 season

Minnesota v Illinois Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Defensive End

Starters: Esezi Otomewo (RS-JR) and Boye Mafe (RS-JR)
Rotation: M.J. Anderson (RS-FR) and Thomas Rush (JR)

The Gophers’ biggest problem at defensive end this season can be boiled down to three words: Setting the edge. The defensive line has struggled at times to set a hard edge, especially against the run, and funnel the ball carrier back toward pursuit. The Wolverines made a point to attack the edge in the season opener, and then Maryland quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa had a field day escaping the pocket as the Gophers’ broke contain:

The good news: After struggling mightily to set the edge against Michigan and Maryland, Minnesota took a big step forward in that regard against Illinois and were also better against Iowa. Unfortunately it was largely for naught, as the defensive line failed to get penetration and the linebackers struggled in pursuit against the outside zone.

Though he has been inconsistent, Boye Mafe has been the bright spot at this position and is tied for the Big Ten lead in sacks with 3.5 through the first half of the season.

Defensive Tackle

Starters: Micah Dew-Treadway (GR) and De’Angelo Carter (RS-FR)
Rotation: Rashad Cheney (RS-FR)
Out: Keonte Schad (COVID) and Jamaal Teague (Opt-Out)

To me, this has been the most disappointing position group on defense. Teague figured to be a big part of the rotation coming into this season before he opted out. But I expected Dew-Treadway and Schad to at least make for a formidable pair up the middle. Carter has shown flashes of being able to get penetration and wreak havoc in the backfield, but the Gophers’ defensive tackles have largely been rendered inert. When you aren’t disruptive up front, that allows opposing offenses to be patient and take advantage of slow-developing plays.

Several commenters on this site have suggested the Gophers are undersized at this position. Dew-Treadway is 6’4” and 315 lbs., Schad is 6’3” and 295 lbs., and Carter is 6’2” and 310 lbs. For comparison, Iowa’s starting defensive tackles are 6’3” and 305 lbs. and 6’4” and 312 lbs. So I’m sure how much size is a factor. If anything, Iowa’s outside zone plays effectively neutralized their mass by putting the defensive linemen in motion and forcing them to move laterally.

Linebacker

Starters: Mariano Sori-Marin (JR) and James Gordon (RS-FR)
Rotation: Cody Lindenberg (FR), Josh Aune (RS-SO), and Donald Willis (RS-FR)
Out: Braelen Oliver (Injury)

Youth and inexperience is 100% the problem here. This is an athletic group, but they haven’t been able to play fast because the mental aspect of their game — knowing their assignments, diagnosing plays, fitting runs — simply isn’t there yet. In other words, they’re thinking too much. Getting game reps will help that mental maturation process along. In terms of technique though, they simply have to get better at shedding blocks.

To make matters worse, Sori-Marin is the most experienced linebacker on the roster yet he has struggled perhaps more than anyone else on defense. According to Pro Football Focus, he is the lowest-rated defensive starter for Minnesota. Against Iowa, he actually made a great play on the Hawkeyes’ first drive of the game. On third down, Sori-Marin shed the block from the tight end and shot through the gap to drop Tyler Goodson for no gain:

On the next drive, Sori-Marin had a chance to make the play again, with a clean gap to Goodson opening up as James Gordon and Josh Aune are eaten up by blockers. But Sori-Marin takes a poor angle and Goodson blows past him for a big gain:

Fleck believes Sori-Marin needs to get out of his own head.

“I think that when you look at Mariano, it’s sometimes when you do have experience and you’re surrounded by people with inexperience, you try to do their job too. And then you try to do too much,” Fleck said on Monday. “He wants to play corner, safety, three-technique, nose, and linebacker at the same time. You’ve gotta be able just to trust the people around you.”

Cornerback

Starters: Coney Durr (RS-SR), Phillip Howard (RS-SR), and Justus Harris (SR)
Rotation: Terell Smith (JR)
Out: Benjamin St.-Juste (COVID)

The recruiting issues are glaring here. Howard is a converted wide receiver who has been limited to special teams action, and Durr, Harris, and Smith were all inherited from the previous coaching regime. St.-Juste was a grad transfer from Michigan. Behind those five, Minnesota has one redshirt freshman and three true freshmen.

Durr and St.-Juste are both good cornerbacks, but defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has not been as aggressive in his coverages. Through the first two games, the Gophers played a lot of man coverage with huge cushions, and opposing quarterbacks simply sat in the pocket and threw under the coverage. Rossi has since switched to zone coverages, which also puts the defensive backs in better position to make plays in run support.

Safety

Starters: Jordan Howden (JR) and Tyler Nubin (SO)
Rotation: Michael Dixon (FR)

Minnesota is razor thin at safety, with only four scholarship players. Up until the Iowa game, Howden and Nubin had played every defensive snap for the Gophers. Nubin and Howden are actually No. 1 and 2 on the team in tackles with 25 and 23, respectively. Nubin has been as good as advertised in terms of athleticism, but he has also been guilty of taking poor angles to the ball. The mental mistakes between Howden and Nubin have, I think, forced Rossi to be more vanilla in his play-calling, limiting his ability to disguise pass coverages.

Against the Hawkeyes on Friday night, the coaching staff finally decided to give Nubin a breather and inserted true freshman Michael Dixon throughout the game. He impressed in his debut, showing off his range and physicality against the run.


Key Takeaways

  • In trying to play to the strengths of his defense, coordinator Joe Rossi has not been able to utilize his own strengths. Having to simplify the schemes for his defenders has limited his ability to be aggressive and also his creativity in how he disguises coverages.
  • There is a domino effect to a lot of the Gophers’ issues on defense. If Minnesota is soft up front on the defensive line, that puts more pressure on the linebackers to play fast and make a play. If the linebackers are struggling to shed blocks and make tackles, that is going to affect the types of coverages the Gophers are able to call since their defensive backs are needed in run support. One leak in the boat has led to multiple leaks.
  • There is youth and inexperience on the field, but the poor play by upperclassmen is a concern. Mariano Sori-Marin, Thomas Rush, Micah Dew-Treadway, and Jordan Howden are all experienced players who have not made much of an impact this season. There is a leadership vacuum and I’m not sure who, if anyone, has stepped up to fill it.
  • It is fair to question how this roster has been managed, and I’m curious what Fleck’s philosophy is in terms of getting younger players game experience during good years, rather than having them take their lumps in a lost season. Every team loses starters from one year to the next. But not every team craters during the transition.