The defensive problems facing the Gophers, to put it bluntly, are massive. They’re allowing more than 43 points and 500 yards in Big Ten games, and that has led to a 1-5 conference record.
Enter Joe Rossi, the team’s interim defensive coordinator.
With three weeks left in the season, Rossi knows he’s not charged with reinventing the wheel. He can’t pluck players from a waiver wire, and he won’t be installing a whole new system.
“We’re not going to be able to make changes other than minor changes,” said Rossi, the defensive line coach who on Sunday took over as coordinator when Robb Smith was relieved of those duties. “There will be a few wrinkles here and there, but let’s be honest: That can’t happen in one or two days.”
Rossi held his first media session in his new role on Wednesday, after leading his second practice in charge of the defense. His message: “Sometimes when there’s a different voice, that can be positive for people in the room.”
So far, that’s been an intense, focused voice, according to Gophers junior rush end Carter Coughlin.
“He said he’s a little bit different than Coach Smith, and we’re going to see that,” Coughlin said. “And he said we haven’t been practicing like we need to. So, he’s been really getting on us about the way we’re practicing, and it’s been really high intensity the last two days.”
That’s not surprising, given what has transpired with the Gophers defense during the Big Ten season.
On Saturday, the Gophers gave up 646 yards in a 55-31 loss at Illinois that featured the Fighting Illini scoring four touchdowns of 67 yards or longer. It was just the latest episode of a trend in which Minnesota’s defense has allowed 31 touchdowns in conference play averaging 34.7 yards per score. That cost Smith his job, and Rossi will try to at least slow the bleeding from those big plays.
His first task is to get his players in better position.
“No. 1, it starts with everyone understanding what their role is and what they need to do. No. 2, we’ve got to be better in the run game in terms of setting edges,” Rossi said. “Sometimes a missed tackle is because it’s a missed tackle. Sometimes it’s a missed tackle because it happens in too much space.
“Listen, are we going to go from zero to 60 in two days? No,” he added. “But if we can just get a little bit better, a little bit better and help our guys in the back end, it’ll make a big difference for us.”
Fleck told Rossi that he wants the defense to play fast, but also to call the game as he sees fit.
“What I want to see him be is himself,” Fleck said. “I don’t want him to be anybody else but Joe Rossi.”
Climbing the ladder
Just who is Joe Rossi? The 39-year-old is a Pittsburgh native who attended Central Catholic High School — Dan Marino’s alma mater — then played on the defensive line for Allegheny College, an NCAA Division III school in Meadville, Pa.
His coaching career began at Thiel College in Greenville, Pa., where he was defensive line coach, then defensive coordinator. He worked his way up to become defensive coordinator at Maine, and then at Rutgers in 2014 and ’15 after an interim role before a 2013 bowl game.
Rossi joined Fleck’s staff last year as a quality control assistant, then was promoted to defensive line coach. He believes his path has prepared him for this new role.
“I came up a little different than some people, and I think it’s a positive,” he said. “I was a Division III player, I was six years as a Division III coach. Just clawing and scratching and trying to make the jump.”
Now, he’ll try to help Minnesota’s defense make a jump forward. Coughlin sees Rossi’s attention to detail helping with that.
“I know from working with Coach Rossi last year is he’s unbelievably detailed,” he said. “When you go out to practice, you know inside and out what your job is supposed to be.”
Rossi made no promises on results, only effort.
“I’m not looking at it other than, ‘Leave it better than I found it,’ “ he said. “… We’re going to do it to the best of our abilities, and whatever happens, happens.
“If we can get better every week for the last three weeks of the season and use that as a springboard, I think it will be a success.’’