Serving as the backbone during the Gophers' 11-2 campaign in 2019, Minnesota's defense featured several experienced players who comprised a strong core for the unit. Heading into the upcoming season, the Gophers are forced to replace the majority of their starters from a season ago.
Although the team lost several important leaders on the defensive side of the ball, the future of the unit spent last season gaining experience as role players. Having seen glimpses of them on the field, coaches are confident the defense's young contributors will excel as they take on more responsibility in 2020.
"It's not necessarily, on the defensive side, a matter of filling the skill. It's more the talent," head coach P.J. Fleck said. "The talent of leadership that we had, we have to fill that void."
Most of the transition for the Gophers' defense in 2020 will occur in the front seven. Along the defensive line, Micah Dew-Treadway, who started all 13 games at defensive tackle in 2019, is the only regular starter who will return. Defensive linemen Sam Renner and Winston DeLattiboudere also made 13 starts last year but exhausted their eligibilities.
Stepping into pass-rushing roles will be redshirt juniors Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe, both of whom received regular playing time in 2019. Now upperclassmen, Mafe and Otomewo are expected to step in as starters on the defensive line. Fleck says Otomewo has the size and strength to handle Big Ten offensive lines, while Mafe has athleticism that excites coaches.
"I'm really excited for Boye Mafe," Fleck said. "He's one of the faster guys on our football team in general. He's twitched up. And sometimes you need a guy to graduate to see what you have in someone else. I think that's perfect for what Boye is going through."
Junior Thomas Rush should also see more snaps in 2020, after making the switch from outside linebacker to defensive end. Rush has career totals of eight tackles and one sack. In addition, senior Keonte Schad should see increased playing time. Schad played in all 13 games in his first season with the team after transferring from Ellsworth Community College in Iowa.
At linebacker, Kamal Martin and Carter Coughlin were both late-round selections in the NFL Draft, getting selected by the Green Bay Packers and New York Giants respectively. Another senior leader Thomas Barber also graduated after four seasons with the team.
To replace the linebacker core of Martin, Coughlin and Barber, who combined to start 95 games in their careers, Minnesota will turn to a pair of linebackers who already have experience. Linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin started 7 games last season as a sophomore, finishing with 42 tackles.
"A lot of people forget, we didn't have Kamal in some of the biggest games last year," Fleck said. "Mariano went in there and helped us win those football games. And he's taken on a whole new leadership role."
Redshirt sophomore Braelen Oliver also flashed at times in 2019, totaling 22 tackles and three sacks on the season. He figures to start alongside Sori-Marin in 2020.
In the secondary, Minnesota returns three key contributors from a year ago in cornerbacks Coney Durr and Benjamin St-Juste as well as safety Jordan Howden. However, the Gophers are tasked with replacing All-American safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and nickel back Chris Williamson, who were both selected in the NFL Draft.
In the defensive backfield, Minnesota will call upon players with limited experience. Cornerback Kiondre Thomas transferred to Kansas State in April, leaving senior Justus Harris as the cornerback most likely to replace Williamson at nickel. Harris has appeared in 13 games each of the past two seasons, recording 21 total tackles over his career.
To round out the defense, sophomore Tyler Nubin projects to start alongside Howden at safety. Nubin, who recorded six tackles and two passes defended in 2019, came to Minnesota as the highest-rated prospect in his 2019 recruiting class, according to 247Sports.
Along with players, Minnesota has made some changes to its defensive coaching staff. Fleck brought in a pair of new coaches. Chad Wilt was hired in January as the defensive line coach, and Paul Haynes joined the staff in February as the cornerbacks coach.