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Minnesota Football 2021 Preview: Cornerback Upgrade / Downgrade

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A look at the Gopher corners and if this is an upgrade from last year.

Georgia Southern v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

A Gopher defense that gave up 30 points per game and was 12th in rushing defense in the Big Ten also wasn’t nearly as bad against the pass. Coverage wasn’t a huge issue last year.

What do we think about our corners this year?

How did I do last year?

LINK

I predicted an upgrade and in the poll provided, 66% of you all also predicted an upgrade.

This unit, I will confidently call an upgrade. We know exactly what we are going to get with our starting corners and I firmly believe that Smith is going to be a starting caliber CB for this team. One who will make plays, giving the staff three very good outside corners. At nickel, there will need to be some development and there will likely be a dip in run help from this spot. But overall, I’m very confident in the 2020 Gopher corners/nickel. This unit will be a slight upgrade.

Hard to say if this was accurate or not. The corners were good, Benjamin St-Juste had a great season and earned himself a draft slot. Coney Durr was also very good in coverage. But they were pretty good in 2019 as well, so I think we can all agree they were good in 2020, but were they better?

2020

Starter: Coney Durr, Benjamin St-Juste, Justus Harris (nickel)
Depth: Terell Smith, Phillip Howard

The overall theme of the 2020 defense remains the same...they struggled last year. But the corners probably fared better than the rest. St-Juste and Durr were solid. One was drafted and the other earned conference honorable mention honors. Depth was not particularly strong, but Durr and St-Juste were durable.

Big games were given up through the air against Maryland and Purdue, who were the top two passing teams in the Big Ten. Passing yards were kept down against Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin; who were the bottom three teams in Big Ten passing. So, this unit (along with the safeties) sort of did what they were supposed to do.

2021

Starter: Coney Durr, Terell Smith, Justus Harris (nickel)
Depth: Phillip Howard, Justin Waley, Miles Flemming, Solomon Brown (nickel)

Gone is St-Juste, which leaves some big shoes to be filled. Durr will start, as he has done 30 times as a Gopher. There is trust here that Durr will be fine. Opposite him will be Smith, trying to fill those shoes of St-Juste. This is where things get a little dicey. Smith has had an up and down career for the Gophers and whether or not he’s ready to start and peform at a high level is a significant question for the 2021 defense. On the one hand, he has shown flashes of being rather good and utilizing his elite combination of size and speed. On the other hand, he has often struggled mightily in coverage.

Harris gets very little ink but has played in 33 games for the Gophers and has become a solid nickel corner. Often not standing out with big plays, but also not the culprit of giving up big plays. His final year should be just fine and not an area for great concern.

Then we get to the depth. Phillip Howard is a former WR, converted to corner and has slowly been earning more playing time. He expects to be in the mix for playing time this season. Waley is a true freshman who was here for spring practice and looks like he is going to be very good. There were good reports out of spring ball on Waley and he looked the part at practice and the spring game.

Flemming, Brown and Stephen Ortiz Jr are all young, inexperienced and should get their first taste of action at the Big Ten level. Ortiz is a true freshman who comes to the program very highly ranked, but so far has not garnered much attention. A redshirt appears likely.

Upgrade/Downgrade

You may have noticed that I have a streak of every position group being an upgrade so far. Which, to be fair, is reasonably considering basically everyone is coming back and even just slight improvement still counts as an upgrade. But I’m breaking my streak here.

I do like the future of this unit (Smith for one more year, Waley, Ortiz, Brown and Flemming), but losing St-Juste is going to make this group a downgrade. Smith is the key here. If he, or someone else, can step up to have an elite season, then this group is neutral or better. But counting on someone to have the type of season that would warrant a 3rd round draft selection is asking a LOT.

I’m comfortable with this unit, but it will be a slight downgrade from 2020.

Poll

Will we get an upgrade from the Gopher corners in 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 9%
    UPGRADE: More depth and a great season is going to happen from the starters.
    (25 votes)
  • 56%
    NEUTRAL: St-Juste is a loss, but others will step up.
    (145 votes)
  • 34%
    DOWNGRADE: Can’t make up for the loss of St-Juste.
    (88 votes)
258 votes total Vote Now