P.J. Fleck is committed to running a 4-3 base defense with the Gophers, and that hasn't changed, even with two holes now at defensive end.
One starting defensive end, Hendrick Ekpe, graduated, and another, Gaelin Elmore, announced Thursday that he was transferring. Ekpe and Elmore didn't compile big numbers during their Gophers careers -- 14 tackles for a loss for Ekpe, 9.5 for Elmore -- but they played big minutes for successful defenses.
Now, the two leading candidates to start at defensive end are sophomores Winston DeLattiboudere and Tai'yon Devers. Both made their presence felt as freshmen last fall, with DeLattiboudere making 3.5 tackles for a loss, and Devers making three.
All three of those for Devers came on electrifying sacks that forced fumbles. But he is still a young player who's growing into his frame, currently listed at 215 pounds. Ekpe was listed at 240, and Elmore 275. Until he fills out, Devers will remain somewhat of a liability against the run. This fall's schedule includes Michigan State, Iowa, Michigan, Northwestern and Wisconsin -- teams that can flourish running downhill.
With a slew of talented pass-rushing linebackers, the Gophers became more of a hybrid defense last year under former coordinator Jay Sawvel. They still had a 4-3 base, but incorporated the 3-4 more and more.
On Thursday, new defensive coordinator Robb Smith often had linebacker Carter Coughlin lined up as a rush defensive end. Other linebackers such as Kamal Martin, Julian Huff and Blake Cashman (who's recovering from shoulder surgery) figure to see time on the edge in this system, too.
"We’re going to put the best 11 on the field," Fleck said. "We’re still a 4-3 scheme. We will never go away from 4-3. Now, the type of personnel that makes up that 4-3 scheme, that can change a lot through the year. You are going to see people in a lot of different positions, so keep your eyes peeled for what we do and moving people around."
The Gophers should be strong up the middle defensively this year, with three senior defensive tackles -- Steven Richardson, Andrew Stelter and Merrick Jackson. Next year, Gary Moore will be a senior, and then there's ... oops. There isn't a current freshman or sophomore defensive tackle on scholarship. So Fleck's recruits will have to grow up fast.
"Our coaching staff knows we’re going to have to be incredibly creative this year and next year, where we’re going to get younger before we even get older, before we get better," Fleck said. "After this year, we’re going to actually get way younger, so we have to be incredibly creative to find the best athletes, the best players, the smarter players, get them on the field and put them in a position to be really successful."