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A look back at 2019 updgrade/downgrade predictions for the defense

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Leading into the 2019 season we published some upgrade/downgrade posts, how accurate were we?

NCAA Football: Penn State at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Defensively, 2019 wasn’t exactly historic, like the offense was, but it was a very good defense. This was also a group that returned an awful lot from 2018, much was expected of them. We predicted if 2019 units were going to be an upgrade or a downgrade, let’s see how close we were.

DEFENSIVE END (link)

My Prediction: Upgrade
Voting Prediction: Upgrade (70%)

More broadly speaking, defensive end has been the position group that has been the most disappointing in the three years of the Fleck era. Not a criticism and this area hasn’t been “bad” but it has certainly been a question mark each season, yet to be a real strength. No doubt they are working on that.

But 2018 was nothing special at DE outside of Carter Coughlin. He broke out to be a huge playmaker, especially in the offensive backfield. There were high hopes for his 2019 campaign and hopes that other names would emerge as reliable contributors or occasional playmakers.

Coughlin’s production form year to year pretty much the same. A slight regression in stats but that is largely attributed to him getting more attention from opposing offenses. So while Coughlin was getting more attention, the other four guys who saw the most playing time saw a slight uptick in their stats.

But the end result was virtually the same level of production from 2018 to 2019,

So was this an upgrade? I cannot call it such. This was neutral.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE (link)

My Prediction: Neutral
Voting Prediction: Neutral (56%)

Comment Highlight: ClassicGopher, “I could go neutral or upgrade at every other position so far.

But not here. Its a downgrade but with potential to be neutral. Future years look brighter though as the young players get stronger and time. Also, I always forget how how positive everyone is here. I like it, but I don’t think we can call every position an upgrade or neutral.

Excuse me? How dare you question my predictions.

So I was worried about the losses of Gary Moore and OJ Smith in the middle of this Gopher defense. I had zero trust in Sam Renner or any of the new faces.

Last year was solid and it was pretty good when OJ Smith was healthy. Losing Moore hurts as well. For me, there are too many question marks here. I think that Treadway plugs the middle and helps with stopping the run up the middle. The rest of the group...someone needs to step up and produce in a way that we don’t see at this time.

Someone did step up and produce, it was Renner. His 43 tackles, 8.5 TFLs and 5 sacks earned himself honorable mention All-Big Ten. On an individual level it was way more production than any DT in 2018. The rest of the rotation was better as well. Jamal Teague, Micah Dew-Treadway and Keonte Shad combined for 50 tackles and 6.5 TFLs.

This unit wasn’t dominant, but it was a question mark heading into 2019 and it was certainly improved. I predicted neutral and this was an upgrade.

LINEBACKER (link)

My Prediction: Downgrade
Voting Prediction: Neutral (55%)

This unit was a fun one to do last summer. It was a unit with plenty of talent but it was also replacing the likes of Julian Huff and Blake Cashman. Is it a downgrade to lose a draft pick like Cashman while returning the likes of Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin?

Cashman really blew up in 2018 and had a fantastic senior season. Barber also had a great 2018.

So what happened in 2019? Barber’s production was good, but not quite as good as the previous year. Martin actually had better numbers while only playing in 8 games. He was actually the team’s 2nd leading tackler and he played 5 fewer games than most everyone else. Mariano Sori-Marin and Braelen Oliver got to see significant playing time for the first times in their careers. And they did well.

It should also be noted that the Joe Rossi defense went with more 2 linebacker sets in 2019 than it did in 2018. So simply adding up stats to gauge production isn’t a fair comparison.

But I think I would still argue that this was a bit of a downgrade from 2018. Not that it was bad by any stretch, it was still a very good piece of the overall defensive pie, but 2018 was a little stronger.

DEFENSIVE BACK (link)

My Prediction: Upgrade
Voting Prediction: Upgrade (89%)

Comment Highlight: No great comment, but 2 people voted for a downgrade. Probably Iowa fans.

This was projected to be a significant upgrade.

Maybe the biggest slam dunk of an improvement (as I intentionally mix my sports metaphors).

And it really was. Corner was deep and they performed very well. Terell Smith was expected to start and take steps forward as a sophomore, that really didn’t happen. But Benjamin St-Juste stepped up to become a really good corner. He was maybe the most improved player on the defense.

At safety a healthy Antoine Winfield Jr was an absolute beast. His play alone is enough to call this entire unit an upgrade from 2018. But that happens when you have a guy earn himself unanimous All-American accolades. And Jordan Howden showed continued improvement throughout the year to have a very good season.

The 2019 defensive backfield was really, really good. And it was a huge key to the overall success last year.

Easily an upgrade from 2018.

CONCLUSION

I was incorrect on two of the position groups. Sam Renner made me look bad by having a really great season, elevating the tackles. And the ends really were about the same as 2018, as I was hoping for an increase in production.

Overall the defense improved a little from 2018 to 2019. Their S&P+ ranking went from 39th to 26th.

It was so much fun to watch this defense last year. The big plays made at key times and the explosion of Antoine Winfield Jr. was a treat. Looking forward to 2020 (fingers crossed).