P.J. Fleck has a defense filled with many new, unproven faces and when asked about that unit this week, the Gophers coach quickly noted the potential impact of personnel losses.
No, not Antoine Winfield Jr., Carter Coughlin and Thomas Barber.
Those stalwarts undoubtedly will be missed immensely. Fleck was talking about the possibility — likelihood? — that starting players on the current roster will be forced out of action at some point due to positive COVID-19 tests.
Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi shared that same sentiment when asked about his defense’s outlook.
It’s unclear whether Fleck was providing hints about his defense for Saturday’s opener against Michigan or speaking more generally. Like most coaches, P.J. isn’t going to tip his hand about who or how many players will not be available from week to week in this maze of uncertainty.
But toss that new reality into the bucket of Gophers defensive unknowns as this truncated season cranks up with a rivalry game instead of the usual get-your-feet-wet nonconference slate.
“I’m excited about where our defense is headed,” Fleck said. “I have a good feeling about where we’re at. But again, you don’t know until the lights come on.”
Lights, camera …
What will we see? Probably some good, some bad and some in between.
Defenses in college football already play on a slanted field. How quickly the Gophers’ new-look unit matures will determine whether Fleck’s program takes the next step and wins the Big Ten West.
It’s no great revelation to suggest the Gophers offense will score lots of points. They have one of college football’s most efficient quarterbacks, a future first-round draft pick at wide receiver, a workhorse running back, a big, physical offensive line and an assortment of complementary pieces. Assuming COVID-19 doesn’t cause major disruptions to the depth chart — a necessary caveat with every prediction — the Gophers should field a top-20 scoring offense.
Their defense is the wild card.
Only a handful of starters return, mostly in the secondary. Their losses are noteworthy — four NFL draft picks, headlined by Winfield, a contender for NFL defensive rookie of the year and one of the best individual talents to wear the Gophers uniform in decades.
The returning secondary has established veterans with credentials, starting with cornerbacks Coney Durr and Benjamin St.-Juste. The question marks reside with their front seven, which is mostly rebuilt with players shifting from backups to starters, or freshmen.
“There is a process to it,” Rossi said. “I expect to see them have a starting point at the beginning of the season. That’s not the end line. That’s the starting line.”
Expect that to become Rossi’s company line this season. He knows his defense won’t be as good in Week 1 as it should be in Week 9.
Gophers coaches rave about what they see in practice, in physical makeup, in work ethic and in raw talent from the newcomers. Some of them certainly look the part, which reflects Fleck’s ability to recruit better athletes to campus.
But it’s all just potential until revealed in game situations. Nobody knows for sure how that will look right away, which is probably equal parts exciting and terrifying for coaches given the elimination of nonconference tune-ups.
“I have high expectations for what they will become,” Rossi said.
Their first test strikes a similar tone. Michigan lost a ton on offense. Four offensive linemen were NFL draft picks. No. 1 wide receiver Nico Collins opted out. Senior quarterback Dylan McCaffrey transferred, with sophomore Joe Milton winning that job.
Milton (6-5, 243 pounds) carries a lot of hype as a former prep star with physical traits that make NFL scouts drool. But he’s still an unknown, because of his lack of experience.
“We’ll throw a bunch at them,” Rossi said.
Offenses likely will reciprocate. Rossi looked like a miracle worker after replacing Robb Smith late in the 2018 season. He inherited a mess and made the defense stout in a blink.
This is not that situation. The Gophers don’t need a miracle. Their overall talent and depth have improved significantly since then. Rossi has been in charge long enough for his system to have taken root.
His defense is just young and inexperienced at the first two levels. We’ll find out what that means exactly starting Saturday night.