The Gophers football team finished the 2019 season ranked 10th nationally in total defense and had four defensive players selected in the NFL draft for the first time since 1969.
Historically, that was very un-Gophers-like.
Those personnel losses and common sense suggest their defense had zero chance of duplicating those credentials this season. A step backward was inevitable, even expected.
The results through four games represent more than just a little decline.
Apparently they are starting over, from scratch, based on P.J. Fleck’s pleas for patience and reminders that he played seven freshmen on defense against Iowa last week.
This has been a staggering U-turn in only one season. From 10th to 93rd in total defense. From 36th to 99th in scoring defense.
The defense is giving up 7.17 yards per rushing attempt, which ranks last nationally (out of 126 teams) and would be the second-highest figure in college football in the past 12 years.
The Gophers also rank No. 5 nationally in time of possession — holding the ball more than 10 minutes longer per game than their opponent — yet they have a minus-27 point differential.
How does this happen in Year 4 of Fleck’s tenure? This isn’t his self-titled Year Zero anymore. These are mostly his recruits now. Did Antoine Winfield Jr. play all 11 positions last season?
“People have to peel back the onion a little bit and just look at who’s playing,” Fleck said this week. “We recruited some really talented players. You might be sitting there going ‘Well, I don’t see that.’ You might not see it yet. But it will hit, and it will happen.”
The trajectory of any program isn’t always linear, but the defensive collapse is jarring because it happened so abruptly on the heels of a historic season.
Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi went through a checklist of areas that need to improve. Gap control, tackling, shedding blocks, properly reading plays, reacting, coaching. So basically, everything.
“It’s a process,” he said. “There’s no magic answer or magic bullet.”
Fleck constantly references his defense’s “youth and inexperience” and, to be fair, the depth chart is littered with youngsters. However, seven upperclassmen started on defense last week — four juniors, two seniors and a graduate transfer. That group collectively entered this season with 200 games of college experience and 60 starts.
This isn’t Freshman 101 for the entire defense.
Most of those veterans are shifting from backups to starters, which is an entirely different responsibility and expectation. Fleck harps on being a “developmental program,” so by that logic, players who have been ingrained in his system, strength program and practice regimen for three or four years should be primed to step in and perform without such a dramatic drop-off.
In this case, Winfield and Co. leave and everything goes haywire.
Fleck admits it’s his “choice” to play so many freshmen. That plan partly stems from attrition since he took over the program. Every program deals with transfers and a certain amount of roster fluidity because player movement has become a staple of modern college athletics. Sometimes it catches up to teams.
On Fleck’s first National Signing Day here in 2017, the coaching staff celebrated enthusiastically the signing of Alabama safety Kendarian Handy-Holly, a high-profile recruit whom Fleck referred to as “Candy Handy-Holly.” He stayed one season before transferring to Auburn.
That’s only one example. Others left the program for various reasons. Turnover makes it challenging to backfill with veterans year to year.
The lack of defensive playmakers has been particularly glaring, maybe more so because Winfield provided many highlight-worthy moments. The defense just looks slow and out of position too often.
Maybe some of these freshmen will turn into difference-makers. It’s hard to know right now.
A media member asked Fleck this week about trying to cover up for young players who are getting pushed around physically. Fleck compared it to having children and expecting a 2-year-old to stand up physically to a 6-year-old.
“That’s the best way I can describe it,” he said.
It’s an odd conversation to be having four years into his tenure.