Projecting the 2021 Gopher Football Depth Chart – Defense

Photo: Tommy Gilligan – USA TODAY Sports

This is part II of a depth chart projection series. Read part I on the offensive HERE.

The Minnesota Gophers 2020 defense was awful. They allowed 416 yards and 30 points per game, but that’s only grazing the surface. Joe Rossi’s group struggled all season to put any pressure on opposing quarterbacks, totalling just 8 sacks through the seven-game season, good for 13th (out of 14) in the Big Ten. The run defense was just as bad, allowing 230 rush yards per game to opposing offenses, also good for 13th, barely edging Illinois (230.1 YPG).

A lot of young football players gained experience last season on the defensive side of the ball and Benjamin St-Juste was taken in the 3rd round of April’s NFL Draft. Beyond that, the glass is pretty half-empty when looking back at last year’s defense.

Heading into the 2021 season, PJ Fleck and his defensive coaching staff are hoping to turn things around in immediate fashion. The head coach seems optimistic that a few key transfer portal acquisitions and renewed health has them headed in the right direction.

But is a major turnaround realistic? Let’s project what the 2021 Minnesota Gophers defensive depth chart might look like and see if we can find out.

Cornerbacks

CB1

  1. Coney Durr, Redshirt SR
  2. Philip Howard, Redshirt SR
  3. Victor Pless, Redshirt FR or Bishop McDonald, Redshirt SR or Steven Ortiz, FR

CB2

  1. Terell Smith, SR,
  2. Miles Fleming, Redshirt FR or Jalen Glaze, Redshirt FR or Justin Walley, FR

Nickel

  1. Justus Harris, SR,
  2. Jalen Glaze, Redshirt FR or Solomon Brown, Redshirt SO or Steven Ortiz, FR

Cornerback wasn’t the biggest problem for the Minnesota Gophers defense in 2021 (but that’s not saying much). This year, Coney Durr (a super senior) will lead the group. Durr has proven himself more than capable in pass coverage and a physical presence in the outside run game. He’s a 3-year starter with 31 starts, 82 tackles and 21 passes defended. A good season could vault Coney up 2022 NFL mock drafts.

The CB2 spot looks like an open competition from my angle, but for now, I’ll pencil in senior, Terell Smith. This is a guy who played a ton and impressed a lot as a freshman in 2018. But Smith wasn’t the same guy when he returned in 2019, suddenly grabby in coverage and avoiding contact in the run game. But Terell has all the talent and physical attributes to be great. He’s 6’1″, 215 lbs and one of the fastest players on roster. His MVP caliber spring game performance is why Terell Smith is currently my CB2 but we still need to see him translate that back to games that count.

Justus Harris was arguably one of the biggest surprises from last season. After struggling to find his footing early in his career, Harris finally got his shot to start last season, as a senior, and took advantage. As a Nickel CB you need to be physical and willing to tackle. Harris proved to be all of those things. But with talented youngsters like Jalen Glaze, Justin Walley and others making their own case for playing time this spring, there’s a lot on the line for both Harris and Smith.

The young dudes on this roster can absolutely push for early playing time. PJ Fleck and his staff are very excited about true freshmen, Steven Ortiz and Justin Walley and that’s why they’re listed above. Don’t be surprised if either one of those guys (or another corners listed) push for that CB2 spot.

Safeties

Safety A

  1. Tyler Nubin, JR
  2. Michael Dixon, SO
  3. Calvin Swenson, Redshirt SR
  4. Darius Green, FR

Safety B

  1. Jordan Howden, SR
  2. Michael Dixon, SO
  3. Calvin Swenson, Redshirt SR
  4. Darius Green, FR

This group, like much of the defense, struggled mightily last season. Bad angles, poor tackling, and less than great coverage all contributed. The departure of Antoine Winfield Jr certainly didn’t help, either. Now, they have to pick up the pieces and “change their best”, as PJ would say.

Nobody expected Tyler Nubin to be a direct replacement for Antoine Winfield Jr but the Gophers need him to be better than he was in 2020. He has all the physical attributes and previous expectations to be elite. We’ll see if he can put it together this year, with Michael Dixon still in competition for his starting role. Dixon played pretty well in limited action (2 games) last year.

Jordan Howden struggled early last season, but he got better as the year went on. I’m willing to allow him the adjustment period after losing Winfield, but he needs to have a big 2021. If the defense is to improve enough to be functional, the safety position needs to be a big part of it.

Defensive Line

rDE

  1. Boye Mafe, Redshirt SR
  2. Thomas Rush, SR
  3. Danny Striggow, Redshirt FR

0/1 Tech (DT)

  1. Nyles Pinckney, Grad Sr
  2. Micah Dew-Treadway, Grad Sr or De’Angelo Carter, Redshirt SO
  3. Logan Richter, Redshirt SO

3 Tech (DT)

  1. De’Angelo Carter, Redshirt SO or Nyles Pinckney, Grad Sr
  2. Rashad Cheney, Redshirt SO or Val Martin, Grad Sr
  3. Gage Keys, Redshirt FR
  4. Deven Eastern, FR

SDE

  1. Esezi Otemewo, Redshirt SR
  2. MJ Anderson, Redshirt SO
  3. Jah Joyner, Redshirt FR or Jalen Logan-Redding, Redshirt FR

I guess you could say the lone bright spot on the defensive line last season was Boye Mafe. He racked up 27 tackles, including 4.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss, also forcing 2 fumbles. It was a pretty solid season but there’s more there, specifically in his run defense. At 6’4″, 265 lbs, Mafe is a freak-of-nature athlete who could be a day-one edge rushing NFL draft prospect with a good season.

Esezi Otemewo, who started at strong side defensive end last year, needs to improve heavily in maintaining the edge and not over-committing too early, but he’s another HUGE (6’6″, 285), athletic dude with a high ceiling. A big year from Esezi could go a really long way for this defense and his future.

Two of the biggest additions this offseason came out of the (graduate) transfer portal. Nyles Pinckney was a defensive captain and National Champion with the Clemson Tigers and figures to be a large part of the fix up the middle for the 2021 Minnesota Gophers. Val Martin, out of NC State, will also get his snaps at the 3-technique, but mainly in pass rush.

De’Angelo Carter and Rashad Cheney are younger guys who made really nice strides in 2020. They are the future of this interior DL and I expect them to flourish with the additional veteran depth now surrounding them. In fact, I’m feeling a breakout year for De’Angelo Carter.

Jah Joyner and MJ Anderson should both be able to help improve a horrid 2020 pass rush and I have Deven Eastern in there too. I think he’s the lone true freshman on the defensive line who find some play time. But admittedly, some injuries or poor play would have to force him into any kind of regular action.

The Minnesota Gophers DL is the most experienced and could be the best unit of this defense. If they can plug up the middle in the run game and put more pressure on the QB when he drops back to pass, they could carry this entire team to another level.

Linebacker

Mike

  1. Jack Gibbens, Grad Sr or Mariano Sori-Marin, SR
  2. Jawqondis Burns, Redshirt FR

Will

  1. Braelin Oliver, Redshirt SO
  2. James Gordon, Redshirt SO or Cody Lindenberg, SO or Donald Willis, Redshirt SO or Josh Aune, Redshirt JR or Jawqondis Burns, Redshirt FR
  3. Lucas Finnessy, Redshirt FR

This group was….. really, really bad last season. They were so bad, in fact, that it became difficult to judge how bad other positions were. Linebackers are crucial for a good run and pass defense. If they’re terrible… your entire defense can go down with it.

The LB struggles in 2020 started with Mariano Sori-Marin, who was utterly terrible. But to his defense, so were the majority of other linebackers on roster. Josh Aune, James Gordon, Donald Willis, and Cody Lindenberg all struggled. Some of it was expected, given the parting of Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin. But a lot of it was unexcusable.

PJ Fleck and Joe Rossi are hoping that a mix of Braelin Oliver’s return from injury, an incoming transfer to spell Sori-Marin at MIKE, and gained experience from last season will all lead to drastic overall improvement at linebacker. Personally, I’d like to see Donald Willis get some time in the blitzing linebacker role, which is where Oliver showed his talent in 2019. Willis could shine there too.

After missing the 2020 season due to injury, Braelin Oliver is healthy and should start on the outside. He’s really athletic, super physical and loves to hit. The Minnesota Gophers defense desperately missed him last season and need him back to form in 2021.

Jack Gibbens, who I really liked after watching the spring game, is a transfer from Abilene Christian University who racked up all sorts of accolades in his past college football life. From the film I’ve watched on Gibbens, he seems to identify and make his reads quickly.

He and Mariano Sori-Marin will split snaps at inside linebacker early. We’ll see who wins the job. This is a talented group of linebackers, but it needs to translate to the field or this defense will be in for another ugly season.

Max Carroll | Minnesota Sports Fan