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Fleck committed to 4-3 defense, even with thinner defensive end corps

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."

Gophers quarterback battle: Fleck gives kudos to Rhoda, Croft, Morgan

Besides adjusting to a whole new coaching staff this spring, the Gophers are looking for a new starting quarterback to replace Mitch Leidner. It'll be an ongoing story, and every word the coaches speak will be parsed. The good thing about a blog is there's plenty of space. So let's go, verbatim, to P.J. Fleck's answer during Tuesday's media scrum:

Question: What’s your early assessment of your quarterback spot?

Fleck: "It took seven questions to get to that one. I thought that would be the first. I will say this: I’m proud of all the guys. To be able to come in to a brand-new situation. It’s not very similar to what they had. It’s brand new. Terminology's new. And to have all the guys commit the way they have, I’m very proud of that process.

"I think the guys that are really kind of showing a lot: You look at Conor [Rhoda's] doing a tremendous job of picking everything up. Is he where he’s going to be? No way. We are so far away from being an elite football team right now. But he’s picking up the offense. He has command of the offense. He’s learning how to be a leader on the offense, how to be an elite quarterback, in terms of running the offense the way he needs to run it.

"And Demry Croft is doing a nice job. Tanner Morgan’s doing a nice job. But you see them all progressing more and more throughout the course of each day. Now, we’ve had two installs over the course of three practices. Now, four, five and six are one-install-per-practice. Now we’re going to start going. But the nuts and the bolts and the base, 25 percent of the offense, is in. But now it’s going to start picking up situational football, and that’s where I really want to see how they handle themselves.

"Football’s a game of situations. It’s not just plays. It’s not just practice. Now you’ve got to play the game. We’ve already played a few times. You saw the last two periods of us getting off the field,  guys going out there and playing it. We have to do that a lot more. Especially with a lot of quarterbacks without much experience."

The takeaway: Yes, it's notable that Fleck didn't mention the other QBs in camp, such as Seth Green, who redshirted last fall and was named the Gophers Offensive Work Team Player of the Year. Fleck actually gave a similar answer to KFAN (100.3-FM) one day earlier, so this wasn't a one-time omission. That said, it's very early in this process. Green should get plenty of chances to impress in coming weeks, along with Mark Williams and walk-on Samuel Pickering.

TV Listings

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Today's Scoreboard

  • Atlanta

    Detroit

     

    - F

    2

    3

  • Philadelphia

    NY Yankees

     

    - F

    2

    3

  • Tampa Bay

    Pittsburgh

     

    - F

    0

    4

  • St. Louis

    Washington

     

    - F

    3

    1

  • Boston

    Toronto

     

    - F

    2

    3

  • Houston

    NY Mets

     

    - F

    2

    0

  • Cleveland

    Chicago Cubs

     

    - F

    4

    2

  • Milwaukee

    Cincinnati

     

    - F

    11

    12

  • Arizona

    LA Dodgers

     

    - F

    6

    13

  • Chicago White Sox

    Oakland

     

    - F

    2

    8

  • San Diego

    Texas

     

    - F

    3

    4

  • San Francisco

    Colorado

     

    - F

    6

    5

  • Kansas City

    Seattle

     

    - F

    3

    4

  • Washington

    Miami

     

    - F

    0

    3

  • Baltimore

    Minnesota

     

    - F

    5

    5

  • Seattle

    LA Angels

     

    - F

    0

    4

No NFL games today

  • Cleveland

    Charlotte

     

    - F

    112

    105

  • Brooklyn

    Washington

     

    - F

    108

    129

  • Detroit

    Orlando

     

    - F

    87

    115

  • Denver

    Indiana

     

    - F

    125

    117

  • Phoenix

    Boston

     

    - F

    120

    130

  • Atlanta

    Milwaukee

     

    - F

    97

    100

  • Philadelphia

    Chicago

     

    - F

    117

    107

  • New Orleans

    Houston

     

    - F

    107

    117

  • Sacramento

    Golden State

     

    - F

    100

    114

  • Minnesota

    LA Lakers

     

    - F

    119

    130

  • NY Islanders

    Pittsburgh

     

    - F

    4

    3

  • Tampa Bay

    Detroit

     

    - F

    2

    1

  • San Jose

    Dallas

     

    - F

    1

    6

  • Winnipeg

    Anaheim

     

    - F

    1

    3

No MLS games today