In last year’s 11-2 season, the Gophers football team didn’t have to rely much on its true freshmen. All except defensive back Tyler Nubin redshirted.
In 2020, the Gophers would be burning more redshirts, if not for the NCAA’s blanket waiver that allows players to maintain their eligibility for an additional year because of the pandemic.
A senior-heavy defense last season meant stable personnel, with Nubin only occasionally rotating in as the heir apparent to now-NFL safety Antoine Winfield Jr. But with all of those players leaving ahead of 2020, plus COVID-19 absences and other injuries further depleting the depth chart, it’s forced a multitude of freshmen to take the field.
Coach P.J. Fleck remarked after the 35-7 Iowa loss last Friday how he noticed six freshmen on defense at one time. In all, 10 freshman defensive players played against Iowa — some on special teams — including four true freshman.
True freshman linebacker Cody Lindenberg started the first three games, while true freshman Michael Dixon took some reps at safety for Nubin against Iowa.
“It’s not like a decision, ‘Hey, we’re putting all these guys in at the same time.’ There’s rotations, there’s guys that get tired, and especially up front, there’s guys that you’re kind of shuffling through,” defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said Wednesday. “… But that said, that’s how it happens. Because in our two-deep, we have a lot of young people.”
When the Gophers take on Purdue on Friday at TCF Bank Stadium, it’s likely first-year players will continue to gain experience.
“They’ve got to make mistakes, and they’ve got to fail so that they can grow,” Rossi said. “And we’ve seen progress. It’s not at the speed we want, but that’s how it works. So we’re going to coach them really hard. … We want to expedite the process as much as possible.”