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Minnesota Football: Gophers’ 2021 post-spring game defensive depth chart

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Experience is no longer an issue for a defense that needs to improve

The Minnesota Golden Gophers’ coaches have made it clear that no starting spot will be decided in the spring, but there are a handful of starting spots up for grabs on the defensive side of the ball following the Maroon team’s 24-17 victory over the Gold team in the spring game. So I took a shot at what the defensive depth chart might look like as the team heads into summer workouts.

Defensive End

Starter(s): Esezi Otomewo
Backup(s): M.J. Anderson

Esezi Otomewo was not able to participate in the spring game, but he is entrenched as the starter at defensive end. That’s not say he doesn’t have players behind him who will be pushing for playing time. In his absence, M.J. Anderson and Jah Joyner made the most of their opportunities in the spring game, combining for three sacks.

Defensive Tackle

Starter(s): Micah Dew-Treadway and DeAngelo Carter
Backup(s): Nyles Pinckney and Rashad Cheney

To be frank, the term “starter” here is irrelevant. This is going to be a rotation, and I’d point to Keonte Schad’s transfer as evidence of that, since he is reportedly looking to play somewhere he can secure more playing time. Micah Dew-Treadway, DeAngelo Carter, and Rashad Cheney all came on strong late last season, and Clemson transfer Nyles Pinckney made noise in the spring game on Saturday. NC State transfer Val Martin did not participate in the spring game but I expect him to be part of the rotation come fall.

Rush End

Starter(s): Boye Mafe
Backup(s): Thomas Rush

Boye Mafe was another non-participant in the spring game, but we know full well what he can do. That is not the case for Thomas Rush, who will look to rebound from a rough debut season at rush end last year. In his defense, the coaching staff have thrust him back into the fire this spring, where he’ll have to battle Danny Striggow for pole position behind Mafe.

Mike Linebacker

Starter(s): Mariano Sori-Marin
Backup(s): Jack Gibbens

I’m not as down as everyone else seems to be on Mariano Sori-Marin. He finally started to get out of his own head and make plays late last year, though he is far from a finished product. With that said, there’s a very real possibility Abilene Christian transfer Jack Gibbens will make a case for the starting spot. He has more experience as a starter, albeit at a lower level of competition, and there is no denying his instincts, which is something this linebacker group sorely lacked last season. This is a battle that will be fought well into fall camp, and for now I’ll give Sori-Marin the edge.

Will Linebacker

Starter(s): Cody Lindenberg
Backup(s): Braelen Oliver

I think it’s likely Braelen Oliver will be the leader at this position by the end of fall camp, but for now I think Cody Lindenberg is ahead. Both head coach P.J. Fleck and defensive coordinator Joe Rossi have stressed that Oliver is not quite 100 percent yet and needs to continue to build his confidence as he works his way back. But I also want to give credit to Lindenberg. He was thrown into the fire last season as a true freshman and often played like a true freshman before missing the final three games due to COVID. But he is athletic and intelligent, and has bulked up this spring to allow him to be more physical as a tackler.

Cornerback

Starter(s): Coney Durr and Terell Smith
Backup(s): Phillip Howard and Justin Walley

Coney Durr is a no-brainer. Terell Smith, on the other hand, is a pleasant surprise. He still has a long way to go before the season opener against Ohio State, but I liked what I saw from him in the spring game. He has all of the physical tools to succeed. If he can be cleaner in coverage, he could have a breakout season in the fall. I think Phillip Howard is in the conversation with him at cornerback, as well. I hesitate to put a true freshman in the two-deep in his first few months on campus, but it’s clear the coaching staff thinks highly of Justin Walley.

Slot Cornerback

Starter(s): Justus Harris
Backup(s): Solomon Brown and Bishop McDonald

Justus Harris is another player who has his starting spot locked down. At slot corner, he’ll be backed up by Solomon Brown and former Minnesota Duluth transfer Bishop McDonald, who has evidently been a standout in spring camp and is now on scholarship.

Safety

Starter(s): Jordan Howden and Tyler Nubin
Backup(s): Calvin Swenson and Michael Dixon

Nothing new to report here. Jordan Howden and Tyler Nubin are your starting safeties. Calvin Swenson is the solid super senior behind Howden at strong safety, and Michael Dixon was supposed to push Nubin this spring at free safety but was sidelined with an undisclosed injury.