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Minnesota Fall Camp: Gophers defensive excitements and concerns heading into 2016

GI takes a look at what excites us and what concerns us about Minnesota's defense headed into fall camp.

What excites us

1) Linebacker talent galore

This may be the deepest position that the Gophers have had at any time during the Claeys tenure. There's a lot of talent for Mike Sherels to try and get on the field as there's some proven starters returning in Jack Lynn, Cody Poock and even Jonathan Celestin to an extent, and there's a host of young talent that's competing to get on the field in Jaylen Waters, Julian Huff, Carter Coughlin, Blake Cashman and Kamal Martin. We also haven't even mentioned Mr. Do It All in Nick Rallis who I expect to be the back-up linebacker at each position this fall, so as you can see, there's a lot of talent at the position, and it's going to be fun to watch defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel figure out how to get it all onto the field.

2) Senior years for Travis and Myrick

Just in case you all forgot, the Gophers are one of five teams to have a defensive back drafted in each of the last three NFL Drafts. Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State and Virginia Tech are the others in that group, and it's safe to say that Minnesota will remain in that category again in the 2017 NFL Draft between Jalen Myrick and Damarius Travis. With no Boddy-Calhoun or Eric Murray in the picture, it's going to be all Jalen Myrick in 2016 and he's someone that loves the spotlight. Damarius Travis is going to be huge in developing this young defensive backs as well, especially the safeties. Travis will be able to set the defense just how Sawvel likes it, and that's half the battle in college football is getting everyone lined up correctly, but his veteran presence will be huge for this young secondary. I expect both Travis and Myrick to be drafted following stellar senior seasons.

3) Deep at defensive tackle

As I'm writing this, I'm really hoping that the football gods let this position group stay "relatively" healthy for Minnesota's 2016 season. For the first time in what seems like forever Minnesota has depth at the defensive tackle position after seemingly battling injuries constantly over the past few seasons. Minnesota returns Steven Richardson, who if healthy, should tabulate double digit tackles for loss, a redshirt senior in Scott Ekpe who has played in 34 college games in his career thus far. You also have Andrew Stelter who has played in 25 games already in his first two seasons, and now he's finally at 290 lbs and is ready to really compete at the defensive tackle spot, plus the Gophers got a JUCO All-American defensive tackle in Merrick Jackson during the last recruiting cycle. We haven't even talked about redshirt sophomore Gary Moore who showed some good things in the spring and your sixth defensive tackle in Shoobe Times has played in 15 collegiate games. The point I'm trying to make here is that Minnesota should FINALLY have some depth at defensive tackle this fall.

What concerns us

1) Who steps up at defensive end?

For as many good things that I had to say about the defensive tackle spot, I don't nearly feel as good about the defensive end position for the Gophers. There's very little, if any proven production from this group heading into the season, with the glimmer of hope being that Gaelin Elmore can take hold of this group and break out this fall. Elmore is more accustomed to the defensive end spot now and has dropped some weight to try and increase his explosiveness, but while he has played in 25 games in his first two seasons, he only has 23 total tackles in that span. Hank Ekpe started 11 games last fall, and ended up with 11 total tackles, which isn't ideal at all, so I think his starting spot is absolutely up for grabs. Behind Elmore and Ekpe, there's no proven end as Julien Kafo has two collegiate games under his belt and Winston DeLattiboudere and Jerry Gibson have yet to take a snap. This group here has a lot to prove in 2016. 

2) Replacing Boddy and Murray

It's never easy to replace two cornerbacks who are now on NFL rosters and that started so many games in a Gopher uniform, but luckily Minnesota has a pretty darn good recent history at the position. The real question will be who is the guy that'll step up as it's pretty clear that Jalen Myrick will be starting on one side. The interesting thing about that question is that I can tell you a story where potentially six different defensive backs could be starting there come Oregon State. The guy who will likely get the early shot is redshirt freshman Ray Buford as he made strides this spring, and has one of the highest ceilings on the team. I expect Buford to play some this fall, and I expect him to take some lumps as he gets acclimated to college football, but if that light bulb goes on, watch out. KiAnte Hardin and Antonio Shenault are two corners that played as true freshmen last fall and will have a shot to get the starting nod, and there's there's a couple of true freshmen that could make waves. I expect Coney Durr and Antoine Winfield Jr. to play right away, and if they prove to be the most ready of the corners, Jay Sawvel will start them without hesitation. Going to be an interesting position to watch during fall camp.

3) Finding a replacement at safety

As was said about the corner spot, the safety spot alongside Damarius Travis is another position where I can lay out a road map where five different players could starting along side Travis. Ace Rogers played some significant snaps during the first two games last season before tearing his knee, but he's expected to be ready for the season opener. Kunle Ayinde started 11 games at safety in Rogers absence last season as walk-on, and he's now on scholarship because of that performance, but can Ayinde maintain a consistent level of play during the entire course of a season. Eric Amoako is a graduate transfer defensive back that Claeys and Sawvel aren't bringing in to provide depth, but to play meaningful snaps, and the question will be though how quickly can he adjust to a new scheme. Duke McGhee had two 12 tackle games against Illinois and Wisconsin respectively last season, but can he maintain consistent play? Plus you have redshirt freshmen Jacob Huff, Dior Johnson and Zo Craighton that'll be pushing for playing time as well. 

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