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Minnesota Football 2023 Preview: Upgrade or Downgrade defensive backfield for the Gophers

Replacing half of the defensive backfield, will this be an upgrade or downgrade for the Gophers?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 27 Wisconsin at Minnesota Photo by Matt Blewett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We may one day look back at this secondary and realize that maybe we didn’t fully appreciate just how good it was in 2022. All four starters very well could be playing on Sundays with 2 of them already on NFL rosters this year, expected to be regular contributors. Which likely means this group will be a downgrade, right?


Starter: Justin Walley, Terell Smith, Jordan Howden, Tyler Nubin
Depth: Beanie Bishop, Ryan Stapp, Michael Dixon, Darius Green, Victor Pless, Rhyland Kelly, Tariq Watson, Bryson Coleman, Jalen Glaze

Gone is one of my favorite Gopher corners from recruitment to graduation. Terell Smith had an up-and-down career that ended with him sticking it out at the U, getting things figured out and having a great senior season that ended with hearing his name called by the Bears on draft day. He started 9 games as a true freshman then over the course of his career he battled injuries, he lost playing time in the middle years and finally started all 13 games as a senior and earned honorable mention All-Big Ten.

Opposite Smith was Justin Walley who had a great sophomore season. He started all 13 games and finished with 3 picks. I’m typing far fewer words here than I did for Smith, but Walley was just as vital to this secondary and had a great season.

Fortunately, Walley and Smith were healthy all year, but behind those two were primarily Ryan Stapp and Beanie Bishop. Both were incoming transfers who provided solid depth on the outside.

Michael Dixon was primarily the team’s nickel.

At safety, the Gophers were blessed to have 5-year starter, Jorden Howden and the very talented Tyler Nubin. Both had outstanding seasons. Howden started 49 games over his career, including all 13 last year. He was All-Big Ten honorable mention, was drafted in the 5th round by the Saints and is likely their starting nickel in week 1. Nubin led the team with 4 picks and was 2nd team All-Big Ten. These two were one of the best safety duos in the Big Ten.

Backing them up was primarily Darius Green who played in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman.


Starters: Justin Walley, Tre’Von Jones, Tyler Nubin, Darius Green
Depth: Tyler Bride, Tyriq Watson, Ryland Kelly, Craid McDonald, Jack Henderson, Coleman Bryson, Aidan Gousby
Freshmen: Zaquan Bryan, Kerry Brown

Gone are 2/4 of the starting backfield, losing Howden and Smith to the NFL. But this unit was also hit hard by transfers with Bishop, Stapp and Dixon all expected to play more significant roles this season but all decided to hit the portal. Leaving the backfield very thin and very young.

Walley is going to be starting at one corner with Nubin starting at safety. Those two spots are about as certain as any starting spots on the roster. And they are both expected to have excellent seasons. Nubin is hoping to improve his draft stock and with another good season, Walley may be in that conversation as well. So those two are locks. But what about the rest?

Well, the rest of the names are all brand new to the program or very inexperienced.

The staff dipped into the Group of 5 to steal 3 DBs in the transfer portal. Tre’Von Jones is the most likely to start opposite Walley. He is a 6’ corner who played 3 seasons at Elon, he’ll have 1 year to play as a Gopher. Tyler Bride will be pushing Jones for that starting spot, or even nickel over the slot. Bride comes to the Gophers from Georgia Southern and will have 2 years to play for Minnesota. And lastly, Jack Henderson transferred to Minnesota from SE Louisiana. He is a 6’3” DB who should see a lot of time as a nickel, coming up into the box or even getting some reps at safety.

All three of the incoming transfers should see regular playing time this season.

Also in the mix at corner will be some of the young guys on the roster. Rhyland Kelly and Tyriq Watson are both redshirt freshmen and should start to get opportunities to work into the rotation.

The wild card at corner, or potentially nickel, is Craig McDonald. A former Minnehaha graduate who played at Iowa State and Auburn before transferring back to finish up his career at Minnesota. His experience and size would be a huge addition to this secondary if he is granted a waiver to play in 2023. But that is pending the NCAA’s decision.

Looking at safety again, you can be sure that Nubin will be starting. Alongside Nubin should be Darius Green, a redshirt sophomore who saw action in all 13 games last year. His starting spot may not be guaranteed, but it seems likely he will get the first crack at starting.

Behind him are Coleman Bryson and Aidan Gousby. Bryson is a redshirt freshman who got some playing time at the end of last season. His memorable highlight was a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown in the bowl game, which earned him defensive MVP honors. Gousby is also a redshirt freshman but he saw very little action a year ago.


These two positions have three distinct groups. The 2 guys we can absolutely count on. Several transfers who are going to have to contribute. And then several redshirt freshmen who may need to grow up FAST.

I don’t see any way that this unit is anything but a downgrade. If Nubin and Walley stay healthy, both could be playing at an All-Big Ten level. If that is the case, then this unit is going to be OK. But there are so many other question marks. The secondary coaches (Danny Collins and Nick Monroe) have their work cut out for themselves.


Will the defensive backfield be an upgrade or a downgrade?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    UPGRADE - you have no idea how good these new names will be
    (8 votes)
  • 46%
    NEUTRAL - Walley and Nubin will carry this unit
    (53 votes)
  • 46%
    DOWNGRADE - hard to lose 2 to the NFL and not take a step back
    (54 votes)
115 votes total Vote Now