In 2019, the Gophers defense never shut up.
Linebacker Thomas Barber yelling commands or grabbing his teammates by the pants and shoving them into position. Defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere confronting a fellow lineman on the sideline for a mistake, pointing out exactly how to fix it before the next drive. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. eliciting crows of admiration for yet another interception.
In 2020, the defense is on mute.
“It looked like it was just communication,” DeLattiboudere said of the Gophers’ 0-2 start largely driven by defensive disasters. “And it looked like guys just have to trust each other more.”
The Gophers enter Saturday’s matchup at Illinois averaging a Big Ten-worst 578 allowed offensive yards per game. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has pinned that on missed tackles and having many young and inexperienced starters, including a true freshman at linebacker.
It seems defensive coordinator Joe Rossi — who will miss this game after testing positive for COVID-19 this week — has put players in good positions but hasn’t been able to pull good performances out of them.
The defense from just a year ago wasn’t the best in the country, but it was solid and consistent, allowing opponents an average of just more than 306 yards and 22 points per game. Combined with a high-scoring offense, it made for an 11-2 season, including a 9-0 run to start.
But Barber, DeLattiboudere, Winfield, linebacker Kamal Martin, rush end Carter Coughlin, defensive tackle Sam Renner and nickel back Chris Williamson are all gone, leaving this incarnation without direction in a year when a global pandemic wiped out the usual offseason.
Winfield, Martin and Coughlin are playing in the NFL, while Williamson is on a practice squad and Renner is making the tryout circuit. The Gophers certainly miss their talent and impact plays, but that’s not the biggest hole left.
“You lose a ton of guys, a lot of vocal guys that definitely knew what they were doing and knew how to lead,” cornerback Coney Durr said. “ … Then you take away spring ball, you take away a lot of summer. So a lot of guys don’t really know how to mold together.”
Bonding takes time
The 2019 defense had years to jell. Winfield and Coughlin, for example, knew each other growing up in Minnesota. In 2016, they became roommates, along with Martin and Barber, for their entire college career. DeLattiboudere and Renner were in the same recruiting class. So chemistry grew throughout the seasons, with transfers such as Williamson or cornerback Benjamin St-Juste able to slot in and thrive because of it.
With that comfort came confidence.
“If somebody messed up, you didn’t have guys turning on each other and saying, ‘Well, I did my job, and he didn’t do his job, so we let up that touchdown,’ ” Renner said. “ … If you have people that don’t know each other or aren’t as invested into each other, it’s real easy to just turn on someone and say that it’s their fault. It’s not my fault.”
Renner recalled the Iowa game last season, in which one of the linebackers missed a read and gave up a big play early that put the defense on its heels. But the group came into the locker room at halftime and collected itself enough to put together a strong second half.
DeLattiboudere said the players genuinely cared for one another because of that bond. Like the time he went too wide in pursuit of the quarterback, causing Williamson to miss a sack. DeLattiboudere wasn’t simply frustrated at his lapse, he felt “a deep amount of remorse” for costing a teammate with NFL dreams a chance to add to his highlight reel.
Wanted: vocal leaders
That brotherhood also made it easier to hold one another accountable for mistakes. But that can be awkward for some players, especially young ones without much experience or those who don’t have that easy charisma to smooth over tough conversations.
The offense has that in Tanner Morgan, the quarterback who plays hard on the field but cares off it, commanding players’ respect. The defense had that in abundance last season but is still searching for that new voice, a strong leader or just someone to give the unit an identity beyond street mime trapped in an invisible box.
Both Fleck and DeLattiboudere have urged Durr to step up, since he’s from the same recruiting class as Winfield, etc. But Durr has always been more of a lead-by-example or one-on-one discussion kind of guy. DeLattiboudere has been in defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway’s ear for the Notre Dame transfer to share his big-time experience with his young teammates.
Many Gophers current and former pointed to DeLattiboudere as a rare natural leader, and he said he learned as a young player under the likes of Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray. While he’s now coaching at UNC-Charlotte, DeLattiboudere is still calling and texting to lend advice to linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin, defensive end Esezi Otomewo and others.
He reminds them to just do their jobs, trust their teammates, take care of their own business and don’t overcompensate. Renner also stays in touch, reminding them there’s people who believe in them — also, don’t forget to relentlessly pursue the ball-carrier.
But they aren’t on the team anymore. So these 2020 players are, in the end, on their own.
“We’ve just got to bring everything together,” Durr said, “and just learn how to play together as soon as possible.”