When discussing the Gophers football team’s defense in 2020, head coach P.J. Fleck and coordinator Joe Rossi choose different metaphors to describe Minnesota’s need to replace seven starters.
“We talk about that grasshopper, that jar on the grasshopper, of taking that off and letting them jump,” Fleck said Monday.
Rossi referred to it as more of endurance race, with the starting block being No. 21 Minnesota’s season opener against No. 18 Michigan on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium.
“That isn’t the end line when we start the season,” Rossi said Wednesday. “That is the starting line. Then if you watch them go throughout the course of the season, my expectation is that you are going to see a tremendous amount of growth.”
Springing off a trampoline or walking before running, the Gophers stepping into bigger roles will have a big standard to meet. Led by four eventual NFL draft picks, Minnesota’s total defense ranked 10th in the nation in 2019, allowing only 306 yards per game, the program’s fewest since 1977.
Now there’s unknowns across all three levels, with three of four starting defensive linemen gone, both top linebackers out, the primary nickel back gone and the unanimous All-American safety now starring in the NFL.
Plus, Minnesota — which isn’t alone here — had spring practices cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic and will have to deal with players being kept out due to COVID-19 over a nine-week schedule this season. A 21-day isolation period comes with a player’s confirmed positive test.
Fleck, who isn’t sharing names of players affected by COVID-19 nor an estimate of how many could be out Saturday, acknowledged it is having an affect on this year’s defense is finding its way.
“The other thing to think about is you’ve got guys playing together as a cohesive unit, then you get some guys — whether they test positive or whatever happens — boom, they get pulled out and another guy steps in,” Fleck said. “Then that guy tests (positive) or something happens, then boom, you’re down to your third guy and you don’t know how that will all fit.
“There’s a lot of question marks in this eight-game stretch. There’s going to be lot of questions that come up every single week.”
The known questions are who fills in for a batch of gone Gophers: free safety Antoine Winfield Jr., rush end Carter Coughlin, and linebackers Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin.
Boye Mafe, of Hopkins, is expected to fill the defensive end spot vacated by Coughin, an Eden Prairie native drafted in the seventh round by the New York Giants. The pair of Minnesotans recently reminisced.
“We just caught up on old times, and they are always going to be a part of our team,” Mafe said Wednesday.
Mafe, who had 14 tackles and three sacks in 13 games in 2019, said he took added pride in the team’s success last year because of his roots.
“It’s been something that is very touching to myself in being a Minnesotan and being able to pridefully represent our state,” Mafe said. “On top of that, to have the pride of the seniors. … They’ve been here since I went to college, having them show me the ropes.”
Mariano Sori-Marin, who has played in 25 collegiate games, will step into the middle linebacker role for Barber. With fellow linebacker Braelen Oliver injured, Josh Aune of St. Paul Highland Park is the next most experienced replacement. He has played 13 games, but no starts. He had a few highlights in a video the Gophers posted online this preseason.
Other candidates — James Gordon and Donald Willis — are redshirt freshmen whose first tastes of college football came on special teams last year.
“The young guys have athleticism,” Rossi said. “They’ve got length for the most part and they can do some things and have some specific skill sets that I think are going to be exciting for people. That said, they are freshmen. They are redshirt freshmen. There is a process to it.”
Rossi used a Fleckism when describing how Tyler Nubin will fill in for Winfield Jr. at free safety: “Comparisons steal your joy.”
“We are not going to worry about Winfield when we are looking at Tyler Nubin,” Rossi said of the Illinois native who played 12 games a year ago, primarily on special teams. “We are going to worry about Tyler Nubin. And Tyler Nubin is a really talented football player. Tyler Nubin has coverage ability. He has physical ability in terms of playing in the run game. We are very excited about his upside and his future. He is one of our hardest workers. … When he practices, he is at 100 percent all the time. That said, he hasn’t started a game before. He has never had to be the guy.”