Jay Sawvel’s job title is defensive coordinator. On Saturday, his business card should have read mad scientist.
Sawvel unveiled new wrinkles in scheme and personnel groupings in the Gophers’ 31-24 victory over Colorado State at TCF Bank Stadium.
The result was a mixed bag. Some good, some bad, which is not unexpected considering the amount of experimenting the Gophers are doing with young players in key roles.
Sawvel alternated between 4-3 and 3-4 fronts with an occasional 2-4-5 alignment employed in obvious passing downs.
He played four true freshmen, two in the starting lineup, and turned loose Tai’yon Devers, who literally knocked the helmet off Colorado State’s quarterback on a violent whiplash sack.
Better talent at linebacker, specifically, gives Sawvel more flexibility in devising game plans, but execution as an entire defense remains a work in progress heading into Big Ten play.
“We’re playing good enough to slow people down a little,” head coach Tracy Claeys said, “but we’re obviously not where we need to be going into the Big Ten.”
Colorado State kept the Gophers off balance by rushing for 158 yards and passing for 211. The Rams ran 79 plays.
Tackling was sloppy, busted assignments led to big gains and Colorado State drove 75 yards for a touchdown on six consecutive runs in the first quarter.
On the flip side, the Gophers created two turnovers and collected 14 tackles for loss.
It was a weird performance, one that looked like two steps forward, one step back.
Defense has been the hallmark of this coaching regime, first under Jerry Kill and now Claeys, the architect. This version has more overall speed and better depth than other defenses under Claeys. Whether everything comes together remains a question to be answered.
“We definitely have to be better,” said safety Damarius Travis, who grabbed an interception in the first half. “We’re not where we want to be.”
Sawvel mentioned last week that he had a conversation with an unnamed coach from another school. The coach referenced Sawvel’s young talent, specifically Devers and true freshmen linebackers Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin.
“That is a nice problem to have when you have all these guys with length and can run and do some of these things,” Sawvel said. “Where there is speed and ability, there is always a way to find something to do with it.”
Sawvel displayed that versatility when he opened the game in a 3-4 alignment with Coughlin and Martin as outside linebackers. Sawvel implemented a 3-4 during spring practice in anticipation of having more speed at linebacker.
He also has an interesting talent in Devers, a wiry pass-rushing specialist. Devers weighs only 215 pounds, meaning he plays on third-and-long because he would get overwhelmed physically as an every-down defensive end.
But he’s a blur as an edge rusher. And he jackhammers quarterbacks when he gets his shot.
Devers secured his spot on highlight packages by separating quarterback Collin Hill from the ball and his helmet on a sack in the second quarter.
It was the third time in three games that Devers had caused a quarterback fumble on a sack.
“If we can put teams in situations where they have to throw the ball all the time, he’s a great weapon,” Claeys said. “If teams are going to run the ball, he’s just not big enough to do that. The good thing is we haven’t been able to get much of a pass rush on third down at times, and right now when we can use him, we are able to do that.”
Both Devers and Coughlin left the game with undisclosed injuries, which is potentially bad news since the secondary also remains shorthanded with two of the top three cornerbacks — KiAnte Hardin and Ray Buford — still serving suspensions.
Claeys declined to delve into how their absences have affected his defense. The answer is obvious. The secondary’s depth is being tested.
The Gophers have areas to clean up, but the talent is there. They have speed and some young playmakers. Of course, youthful mistakes will be part of the deal, too.
It’s a matter of finding consistency. Until then, it’s hard to know what to make of their defense.