The play of the defensive backs was the least of Minnesota’s concerns last season, but the same can’t be said about the group so far this year.
The Gophers’ passing defense has allowed seven touchdowns – the highest in the FBS among teams with just two games – and are one of 14 teams in the FBS that have yet to record an interception.
Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said he isn’t worried, as it has only been two games, but he noted some sloppiness against Indiana State on Sept. 10.
“I think we could have been a lot cleaner. That’s our emphasis this week from a coaching standpoint – make sure we keep a package tight,” Sawvel said. “But when you get up 48-14, sometimes you will get sloppy because the next thing you know you’re putting in people who don’t rep as much, … and all of a sudden you’re going to make mistakes.”
It’s easy to say the group has taken a step back from last year, even after just two games.
Minnesota didn’t allow its seventh touchdown through the air until their seventh game of last season. The Gophers also only allowed over 225 passing yards four times, but they have already done it twice this season.
Their weaknesses have been magnified on third down. The team has allowed a 161.98 quarterback rating on third down this year versus 113.64 last season.
“[We have to] play better on third down,” said head coach Tracy Claeys last week. “We had some guys there who didn't make the play on the ball. Then the last quarter we were substituting like crazy ... I'm not worried about it yet.”
Part of this can be attributed to depth problems.
Minnesota’s two starting cornerbacks from last season, Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun, both graduated and are on NFL rosters.
On top of that, starting sophomore cornerback KiAnte Hardin and redshirt freshman second-string cornerback Ray Buford were suspended before the Indiana State game on Sept. 10 for violating team rules.
Claeys said on Tuesday that the players are still suspended, but he doesn’t have any concerns about a possible lack of depth.
“We've just got to get some experience. In the secondary, when you're young and playing, there's some hard lessons to learn,” Claeys said. “That's what the non-conference is for, and hopefully, we can continue to win while we get those guys some experience back there.”
Sophomore Antonio Shenault is now starting at cornerback, while freshman Coney Durr and redshirt senior Eric Amoako are listed as backups because of the suspensions.
Durr and Amoako both made their Minnesota debuts against Indiana State. Amoako was added to the team in the offseason as a graduate transfer from Oregon and Houston Baptist University.
The cornerbacks have a ways to go, Sawvel said. The group has put in extra work at practice this week.
“We have a lot of improvement to make at corner,” Sawvel said. “There is a huge level in improvement that we have to make week to week and certainly from last game to this game ... We will get there. We’ll see how fast. That is the biggest thing.”