One surprise starter this season is Shady Salamon. Salamon is a familiar name for Gopher fans, he started his career at running back and split time with Deleon Eskridge, before being moved to safety.
Up until now, Salamon has mostly been a contributor on special teams, but this fall he has stood out and snatched the open safety position opposite Kim Royston. This fall he has looked fairly steady at the safety position not making any big plays but rarely missing any plays that go his way.
The Gophers will also be breaking in a new strongside defensive end with Jacobs shifting inside to defensive tackle. Currently Ben Perry finds himself at the top of the depth chart but Matt Garin and Kendall Gregory-McGhee will look to push him for playing time since both have missed time due to injuries this fall.
Last season both Garin and Gregory-McGhee got their chance to see early playing time. Garin initially looked lost and failed to get much of a pass rush early on but as the season progressed he started to get a better feel at the position.
Gregory-McGhee also made the most of his playing time last year where he appeared in all 12 games and made one sack and one pass break-up. In limited time Gregory-McGhee showed he had the strength, speed and athleticism to be a force for the Gophers in the future, a broken foot suffered this summer has limited him this fall.
Perry has made the most of his chance working with the first team defense showing good burst and pass rushing skills this fall. These three underclassmen, combined with the returning starters on the defensive line, should help improve the Gophers pass rush which ranked last in all of FBS football with just eight sacks.
The key to any good team is to have quality back-ups who can step in and at a moment's notice and be able to contribute with minimal drop-off from where it was at when the starter was in. Depth will especially be key in coach Claeys' defensive system which relies heavily on rotating players in and out of the game to keep the starters fresh.
On the defensive line backing up at the defensive tackle position will be redshirt sophomores Ra'Shede Hageman and Eric Jacques along with redshirt freshman Harold Legania and junior Austin Hahn. Hageman and Jacques are converted offensive players, Hageman a former tight end and Jacques a guard.
Hageman was converted early on while Jacques bounced back and forth between both lines before ending up at defensive tackle. Hageman had a rough go at it his redshirt freshman year while he was forced into action early while still learning the position. That being said, he has made great strides in his development and should be a solid back-up to Kirksey and Jacobs given his experience from last season and his raw strength and athleticism.
Jacques on the other hand is almost a complete unknown entering this fall considering he hasn't seen any playing time during his career, but has been playing well during Fall camp. Austin Hahn, a walk-on, last year saw significant playing time behind Kirksey and Edwards playing in seven games and starting one game before suffering a season ending injury.
Michael Amaefula is another reserve who has shown great promise this fall. He has shown some very good raw pass rushing skills during camp but will most likely red-shirt this season.
The linebacker position is again the strongest position in terms of back-ups with Aaron Hill, Brendan Beal and Spencer Reeves all being primary back-ups at the Will, Mike and Sam linebacker positions, Ryan Grant will also be in the mix come this fall. Hill, Reeves and Grant all saw quite a bit of playing time as spot starters or in back up duty last year while Beal had to sit due to transfer rules.
Should one of the starters play poorly or have an injury befall them there should be minimal drop-off at this unit with the back-ups, sans Beal, all having plenty of experience. Beal will have to shake off some rust after missing time at Florida due to injuries and having to sit out for a year but he has shown flashes of the athleticism and tackling ability that made him a five star linebacker coming out of high school.
The secondary will have a mix of youth and experience backing up at the corner and safety positions this fall.
Senior Christyn Lewis will be manning the nickel corner position and will be backing up Kim Royston at safety this season. Lewis is a solid man coverage corner with good ball skills which he showed in junior college before joining the Gophers last season. After he arrived in Minneapolis, Lewis started splitting playing time at safety with James Manuel before being replaced by Ryan Collado. With his coverage skills Lewis should be a strong contributor in the Gophers secondary.
Michael Carter is entering his junior year and has had an up and down career with the Gophers. Carter has shown, at various times throughout his career, very good coverage and tackling skills and then at times other times looked lost and given up big plays down field. If Carter can maintain his focus throughout an entire game he will be a valuable asset in the secondary.
Derrick Wells, a true freshman, has been a surprise this fall. He has great coverage skills and has the ability to get physical when necessary. Wells appears in good shape to push for playing time this fall.
Chase Haviland, a walk-on sophomore, will be backing up Shady Salamon at safety this fall. Haviland has impressed thus far with his ability to make the right reads and finds himself in the right place at the right time.
James Manuel will be another player to keep an eye on this fall, the true sophomore was thrust into a starting role early last season but looked lost and out of place and was replaced by Lewis early on. Manuel does possess great size, speed and strength and could make an impact once he completely understands the mental part of the game. Manuel has been nursing a knee injury through camp but looks like he should be ready for the season.