With spring football practice at Minnesota under way after kicking off on Monday, March 29, we are breaking down each position group leading up to the spring game on Saturday, May 1.
2021 Cornerback Roster
Returning Starter(s): Coney Durr and Justus Harris
Other Returners: Phillip Howard, Terell Smith, Solomon Brown, Miles Fleming, Jalen Glaze, and Victor Pless
Spring Enrollee(s): Justin Walley
Fall Enrollee(s): Steven Ortiz
2020 Season In Review
Coney Durr and Benjamin St.-Juste were not exempt from last season’s struggles on defense, but they were solid for the most part. Durr has opted to return for a sixth and final year after tallying 25 tackles, five pass breakups, and one interception. St.-Juste is headed to the NFL after missing two games due to COVID-19, recording 14 tackles and three pass breakups in five games.
The biggest surprise of last season was Justus Harris. After spending the previous three seasons operating exclusively as a reserve, Harris stepped in for Chris Williamson at slot cornerback and grew into the role as the season went along. Harris made 19 tackles, one pass breakup, and one fumble recovery, and came up big against Purdue. He broke up what would have been a Rondale Moore touchdown catch right before halftime, which then led to a blocked field goal:
With Durr and Harris both returning, that leaves a starting cornerback spot up for grabs. The top two candidates would seem to be Terell Smith and Phillip Howard. Smith showed promise in his freshman season, starting nine games for the Gophers, but his star has faded since then. When he has seen the field, he has struggled in pass coverage, frequently drawing pass interference penalties because he relies too much on his hands to prevent receivers from getting separation.
Howard is a converted wide receiver, but the coaching staff trusted him enough to give him the starting nod when St.-Juste was out for two games last season. I was most impressed with his open field tackling. Against Purdue, Howard was second on the team in tackles with eight. I actually devoted an entire Twitter thread to his tackling from that game:
And then on 2nd & 8, Howard comes up and wraps up Rondale Moore, who I'm told is impossible to tackle: pic.twitter.com/A9BiP5e8Ly— The Daily Gopher (@TheDailyGopher) November 23, 2020
Behind Smith and Howard, there are a handful of unknowns. Miles Fleming and Victor Pless were both freshmen who didn’t see the field last season but figure to be in the conversation to replace St.-Juste. The player I’m most excited about is early enrollee Justin Walley. The former Class 6A Mississippi Mr. Football was a dynamic player on both sides of the ball in high school and he is already turning heads in spring practices at Minnesota. Head coach P.J. Fleck had this to say about Walley in his most recent media availability:
“He’s so competitive. He’s incredibly intelligent. He loves the game of football.
“I haven’t seen many players love to come to practice like he does. You want all your players to love practice, but he loves practice and he loves competing, and I think a lot of you probably saw he stands out pretty quick. He’s Mr. Mississippi for a reason.
“And I know I sit here and ramble on about all the players we recruit and you’re never 100 percent on things like that, but when it comes to skill he’s very talented. I know the older guys like Mariano [Sori-Marin], Coney [Durr], Phillip Howard and T-Time [Terell Smith] are bringing him along too. But he’s a special player and I think Gopher fans really gonna like him not only now but in the future.”
At slot cornerback, Solomon Brown saw snaps against Michigan in the season opener before Justus Harris seized control of the position. Both Brown and Jalen Glaze were in competition with Harris in fall camp last season and I expect them to continue pushing him this offseason.
Spring Watch List
- Finding a successor to St.-Juste. There are rumblings that Fleck and co. have their eye on the transfer portal for a cornerback that fits their culture, but for now the battle to replace Benjamin St.-Juste is between Terell Smith, Phillip Howard, and a couple of freshmen. It will be interesting to see how the cornerbacks perform in the spring game. I’m sure cornerbacks coach Paul Haynes will be looking for someone to step up and make their presence known.
- Show me the Walley. In case you haven’t noticed by now, I am all aboard the Justin Walley hype train. I should probably pump the brakes a bit because he is a true freshman, but he is quite clearly talented and the opportunity is there for him to force his way on to the field. I’m looking forward to seeing him in action in the spring game.