DE: Gaelin Elmore / Julien Kafo
DT: Steven Richardson / Scott Ekpe
DT: Merrick Jackson / Andrew Stelter / Gary Moore
DE: Winston DeLattiboudere / Hank Ekpe
Even though Minnesota is a base 4-3 team as I've listed above, I'm not sure they'll be spending a lot time in it this fall with the introduction of the 3-4 this spring, plus with how much they went 2-4-5 / 4-2-5 in 2015. Regardless, I think the defensive tackle spot is really deep. As expected, Merrick Jackson had a great spring and earned numerous mentions from head coach Tracy Claeys on how disruptive he's been day in and day out of practice. I think he'll earn the nod alongside of Steven Richardson, which should be an extremely fun group to watch as there's multiple talented bodies that should be able to stay fresh throughout games and the course of the season. Also wouldn't be surprised to see Scott Ekpe initially get the starting spot along side Richardson, but I think you'll see a heavy rotation at defensive tackle of Richardson / Jackson / Ekpe / Moore / Stelter and maybe even some Timms or Hall here and there, but I think those five will be rotating a lot for Jeff Phelps along the defensive line.
I'm still concerned about the defensive end spot as Minnesota needs to find a pass rush from their ends, but I think that'll be mitigated by the fact that the Gophers will likely run 3-4 on passing situations or will have stand up linebackers like last fall in their to generate some pressure. Gaelin Elmore has been the most consistent defensive end Minnesota has this spring and he'll be starting where Theiren Cockran was last season. I've almost done a 180 with Hank Ekpe from where I was on him last spring. This year at this time, I was singing Ekpe's praises as Minnesota's tackles couldn't stop a speed rush and Ekpe was tearing things up in the spring and fall camp. Completely different story this spring as while Hank is still getting the starting nod, he's been making a lot less noise out there. Ekpe didn't record a stat in the spring game. The guy who I'm predicting to surpass Ekpe is redshirt freshman Winston DeLattiboudere. Winston isn't the biggest, or fastest guy in the Big Ten, but damn it he's got a motor that doesn't quit and is relentless. I thought that DeLattiboudere really turned a corner (see what I did there?) the last few weeks of spring ball and had a much much consistent pass rush as the weak-side defensive end. I think he'll continue to progress this fall and eventually take over for Ekpe. Not a ton of depth you can count on yet at the defensive end spot as Julien Kafo hasn't seen significant game action yet, as well as Jerry Gibson.
Still think when Minnesota goes 3-4 or 2-4-5, you'll see a lot of Merrick Jackson and Richardson plugging the A and B gabs, while guys like Julian Huff, Nick Rallis, Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin and Jonathan Celestin will be coming off the edge trying to generate pressure that way.
OLB: Jonathan Celestin - Nick Rallis - Julian Huff
MLB: Cody Poock - Nick Rallis - Jaylen Waters
OLB: Jack Lynn - Nick Rallis - Blake Cashman or Carter Coughlin
I'm really high on this position group as a whole as they're the deepest and maybe have the most talented guys on the roster. I think Celestin should be a more consistent upgrade from De'Vondre Campbell in 2016. What I mean by that is while Campbell has more NFL upside, I think Celestin will be the better college player as while his true measurables aren't going to "wow" you, he's a very good college linebacker that can blitz well, come downhill with a lot of steam, make plays in the flats and is a good open-field tackler. Cody Poock is coming off a 99 tackle sophomore season and he should be Minnesota's leading tackler this fall with the Iowa native likely going over 100 tackles in 2016. Poock's instincts and ability to elude contact to make plays remind you a lot of former Gopher and now Cowboys linebacker Damien Wilson. Jack Lynn will be going on his third consecutive season starting and now assumes the leadership role of the group. Lynn should be within the top four or five tacklers on the team again this fall.
You'll notice that I have Nick Rallis as the back-up at each position, and he's among the most, if not the most versatile linebacker Minnesota has and that's saying something. He's got a high enough football intelligence to play each of the linebacker spots and showed that in practice during the spring. He's going to be the guy if someone were to go down that'll fill in immediately. I'm also extremely high on Julian Huff and think he's going to a guy to reckon with this fall as he's come a long way from his freshman season as a stand up defensive end. Had multiple people around the Gophers facility tell me this spring that Huff made the most progress of any of the linebackers. I really like him as an ILB in the 3-4 and think he'll be one of Minnesota's best blitzers. Jaylen Waters also had an impressive spring as he's passed Everett Williams and will be in-line to fill in once Poock heads to the draft in two years. Blake Cashman as a true freshman walk-on played on a majority of the Gophers special teams last fall. Now transitioning from defensive back to linebacker has looked pretty seamless for the Eden Prairie defender and the more time he gets there, the better he'll be. Cashman will be battling this fall for a spot with a fellow Eden Prairie Eagle in true frosh Carter Coughlin. Carter is among Minnesota's highest rated recruits in recent memory and after a great showing at the Army All-American game in January, fans have very high expectations. The Gophers coaching staff will find a way to use Coughlin this fall.
CB: Jalen Myrick - Ray Buford
Safety: Damarius Travis - Duke McGhee
Safety: Ace Rogers - Kunle Ayinde
CB: Kiante Hardin - Coney Durr
Minnesota has a lot to replace from the 2015 season with the departure of NFL defensive backs Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun and leading tackler Antonio Johnson from the safety position, but I don't think Jay Sawvel has ever given us reason to doubt his defensive backs. Minnesota returns senior corner Jalen Myrick who was among Pro Football Focus's top defensive backs in all the country before he went down against Ohio State and I'm sure fans will remember how dominant of a game he had against Purdue with the two interceptions and a tackle for loss. Getting Myrick back along with senior safety Damarius Travis who was out for 2015 with a torn hamstring, is huge for this secondary. Both Myrick and Travis are NFL guys and for them to be able to teach these young defensive backs in 2016 (10 total underclassmen in 2016) is going to be critical for their development this fall and heading into 2017. KiAnte Hardin is the corner I've heard most that Sawvel is very impressed with and should be the front runner to start alongside Myrick. KiAnte played as a true freshman last fall and is a lot like Briean Boddy-Calhoun was a young player. He's got a lot of potential. The guy who may have the highest ceiling on the entire defense is redshirt freshman corner Ray Buford. He has all the physical attributes of a guy who could play on Sunday's, but it's all about keeping Buford engaged each and every practice. Once he gets that motor down, his abilities should shine. I also have Coney Durr over Antonio Shenault even though Shenault played as a true frosh last season, and that's because I know I'm really high on Coney and so are members of the Gopher coaching staff. I think Coney, Kiondre Thomas and Antoine Winfield will have every opportunity to play this fall and see playing time with the lack of depth at corner.null