When Minnesota opens its season Saturday night against Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium, the Gophers defense will see how quickly it can mesh after massive offseason losses. Gone are NFL draft picks Antoine Winfield Jr., Kamal Martin, Carter Coughlin and Chris Williamson, plus multiyear starters Thomas Barber, Winston DeLattiboudere III and Sam Renner. Here are three key questions the Gophers defense faces:
1. Who plays Superman?
Saying that Winfield was valuable to the Gophers isn’t doing the term justice. The All-America safety, who is quickly becoming one of the best at his position in the NFL, was one of the most impactful players in college football in 2019. He led the Gophers with 88 tackles and intercepted seven passes for the nation’s ninth-ranked pass defense. His interception in the second overtime sealed the Gophers’ victory at Fresno State, and his two picks set the tone in the upset of No. 5 Penn State.
This year, the Gophers must rely on a Superman-by-committee approach in the secondary. An improving Jordan Howden (57 tackles, one interception, six pass breakups) is the heir apparent to Winfield’s safety spot, and he’ll benefit from a pair of solid cornerbacks in senior Coney Durr and junior Benjamin St-Juste, who each had 10 pass breakups last year.
2. How will they replace Barber and Martin?
Thomas Barber had 262 tackles the past three seasons, and Kamal Martin totaled 167 in that span. The leadership reins at linebacker now go to junior Mariano Sori-Marin, who started seven games last year and grew into the role. The status of sophomore Braelen Oliver remains uncertain after he suffered an injury during spring practice. Coach P.J. Fleck sees the need for freshmen to emerge. “The [James] Gordons, the Donald Willises of the world, the Cody Lindenbergs, who’s had a really good camp. … We’re training a lot of guys who haven’t played a lot of football,” he said.
3. Who fills the ‘D’ line?
One of the most under-the-radar Gophers defensive players over the past two seasons was tackle Sam Renner, who led the team with five sacks and collected 8½ tackles for loss in 2019. Senior Keonte Schad, who had 21 tackles and 2½ tackles for loss last year while playing in all 13 games, is next in line to fill Renner’s void. The 6-3, 295-pound junior college transfer was productive in a backup role last year, making five tackles against Georgia Southern and three against Wisconsin.