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Gophers Fall Primer: Defensive Skill Positions

The Minnesota Golden Gophers start football practice for the 2016 season in earnest on Friday. Here is a look ahead at what to expect on the offensive and defensive line's with both having a lot to prove in 2016.

What the Gophers have on roster

Poock took on the Big Ten by storm last season after missing the 2014 season with injury, as Cody was second on the team in total tackles with 99. Poock is a lot like former Gophers linebacker Damien Wilson (now with the Cowboys) as he's very quick to fill gaps and loves to go into contact and run throughout it to bring the ball carrier to the ground. Poock and Jack Lynn are the two leaders of the Gopher linebackers and are vital to the success of Minnesota on the field this season.

Jack Lynn finished four in tackles last season with 76, but lead Minnesota in tackles for loss with 11. The Illinois native was a wrecking ball in some of Minnesota's biggest games this past season and linebackers coach Mike Sherels believes Lynn can do even more this fall. No doubt that Lynn will be a starter for the Gophers this fall.

Playing in most a reserve role last fall, linebacker Jonathan Celestin will have some large shoes to fill as he'll try and replace De'Vondre Campbell (now with the Atlanta Falcons). Celestin has shown flashes during his first two seasons at Minnesota as he's already one the Gophers best defenders out in space with a defender and can deliver a thump to anyone. Gopher fans should be excited to see what Celestin can do in a larger role this fall.

I'm just going to come out and say it now, I wouldn't at all be surprised if Julian Huff ends up leading the Gophers in sacks this fall. Huff's role went from a situational pass rusher last fall, to a bonafide linebacker this spring. Sources have even told me that Huff may have been the most improved linebacker this past spring. Huff's burst off the line is among the best on the team and he has no issues using his quickness to get around the blocker to make a player. Remember the name Julian Huff this fall.

Nick Rallis is likely going to be the Swiss Army knife of the Gophers linebacking crew this fall as he'll likely be the backup to every position. Rallis was a key special teams contributor last fall for Minnesota as continued to get back to 100% from knee surgery and was a force in the Gophers final two games against Wisconsin and Central Michigan.

Waters after a redshirt season last fall, really looked the part of a Big Ten linebacker this fall. Head coach Tracy Claeys mentioned after one of Minnesota's spring practices earlier this year that Waters reminded him of when Cody Poock first got to campus, and that's quite the compliment. Waters looked to be establishing himself in the rotation this fall and at worst will be a large special teams guy in 2016.

Expectations are through the roof for this young man in Minnesota's own Carter Coughlin. The Eden Prairie Eagle comes in as the 51st ranked recruit in the entire 2016 recruiting class and the best linebacker in the Midwest. Coughlin has an outstanding physical tool set to go with natural instincts that just can't be taught. It's expected that Coughlin will play this fall, but his role will be determined in fall camp yet. 

Other guys that could have larger roles are both Everett Williams and Blake Cashman. Williams is just two years removed now from a start against Iowa as a true freshman and Cashman as a true freshman walk-on played on a lot of Minnesota's special teams. Another true freshman that could see time if he proves he's ready is Burnsville's Kamal Martin. I expect Thomas Barber to redshirt. 

Projected 2016 depth chart

OLB: Jonathan Celestin - Julian Huff / Nick Rallis

MLB: Cody Poock - Jaylen Waters / Nick Rallis

OLB: Jack Lynn - Nick Rallis / Carter Coughlin / Blake Cashman

Defensive Backs

Travis is the undisputed leader of the Gophers secondary heading into 2016. The redshirt season is coming off a medical redshirt season that saw him accumulate 10 tackles against TCU, then tear his hamstring on one of the final plays of the game. Travis looked to be close to 100% in the spring and is absolutely on multiple NFL teams radars and should see his stock sky rocket if he can stay healthy for the duration of the season. Travis could contend for the team lead in tackles.

Myrick was among the best corners in football before getting injured as Pro Football Focus has very high praise for the Georgia native. Myrick looked to be fully recovered this past spring and now has to assume the Alpha Male mentality as the Gophers top corner. Myrick also has to continue stepping up into leadership role with so many young corners on roster. Minnesota needs a great senior season out of Myrick and both he and Travis should be competing for an NFL draft spot come April.

Hardin played in every game as a true freshman last season racking up 13 total tackles, plus served as team's primary returner during final half of the season, recording 328 all-purpose yards. Hardin was also named the team's Outstanding Defensive Freshman of the Year. The Missouri native saw the injury bug bite him a bit this spring as he missed time, but Hardin could be considered the front runner to start alongside Myrick at this stage. He'll need to take another step forward come fall camp.

The guy with maybe the highest ceiling on the entire roster is freshman Ray Buford. He has all the physical tools to be a potential first round draft pick one day, but has to bring that fire each and every day at practice. Buford is going to take some lumps this fall with it being his first collegiate season, but Buford could absolutely be a starter for Minnesota this year if things continue to progress for him.

With Damarius Travis going down early, it was then walk-on safety Kunle Ayinde stepping up for Minnesota as the Northstar product started 11 games for the Gophers last fall. Ayinde looked to be a little worn down toward the latter half of the season, and now he looks to grab the starting safety position for the second consecutive season.

Shenault is another 2015 signee that played right away as a true freshman last fall for Minnesota. Shenault took a step forward here in the spring, capitalizing on extra reps with KiAnte Hardin out with injury and now has firmly put himself in the conversation for a bigger role this fall.

After debuting against TCU last fall, Rogers missed 10 games with a knee injury and looks to be on schedule to participate in fall camp for Minnesota this fall. Rogers looked to have a key role last year if he would have remained healthy and I don't expect that to change heading into this fall. Rogers has to come back 100% healthy this fall as it'll be a hotly contested race to see who starts along side Travis this fall.

Minnesota brought in graduate transfer safety Eric Amoako for a reason and that's to compete for a role on the defense this fall. Gophers need a guy who has the versatility to play corner, safety and nickle for Minnesota this fall. Amoako's playing time is going to largely depend on how quickly he can immerse himself in Jay Sawvel's defense.

Duke McGhee really came on for Minnesota during the final two games of the Big Ten season notching 12 tackles (two PBU's and a TFL) against Illinois and 12 tackles against Wisconsin. McGhee loves to be the hammer to the offense's nail and is very physically impressive to watch. He battled an injury in the spring as well, so Minnesota needs him healthy this fall.

The defensive back with maybe the highest of expectations of any corner to arrive in the Tracy Claeys era is Louisiana's Coney Durr. Minnesota received great news on signing day that Durr was going to stick with his Minnesota commitment over North Carolina and Virginia Tech, and now it's on for debut this fall. I wouldn't be shocked at all to see Durr have a major spot as a true freshman. 

Other guys that could see time are Jacob HuffZo Craighton and Dior Johnson. Three more guys from Minnesota's 2015 defensive back class. It also wouldn't be a surprise to see Kiondre Thomas or Antoine Winfield Jr. see the field this fall as well.  

Projected 2016 depth chart

CB: Jalen Myrick - Antonio Shenault

Safety: Damarius Travis - Jacob Huff

Safety: Ace Rogers / Kunle Ayinde / Eric Amoako

CB: Kiante Hardin - Ray Buford / Coney Durr

Nickle: Eric Amoako - Coney Durr

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