The Minnesota Gophers fit the classic cliche of an aggressive defense that is paired with an ultra-conservative offense and strong special teams unit. While Jerry Kill served as both an offensive and defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach he clearly has a preference for building a team around defense with the offense only being relied on to score points off opportunities created from favorable field position.
But while the overall philosophy in Minneapolis is conservative, the way they attack their opponents on defense is far from safe.
Like many other teams today such as the nearby Spartans of Michigan State or the Hokies down in Virginia, Minnesota embraces what could be called a "break don't bend" defensive approach. In their relentless pursuit to build one of the Big 10's strongest programs, Kill's Gopher staff has nailed down one crucial element of roster construction: the rule of three.
The Gophers played surprisingly good run defense last year despite featuring "wide-9" defensive end play and a freshman nose tackle because they had two very good cornerbacks that could play press or off man coverage and a free safety that could also play man coverage on deep routes.
With both corners returning and a few candidates available to step in at free safety, the Gophers can roll forwards building their defense outside-in and perhaps even challenge for the Big 10 West crown.
How the Gophers lean on their "three"
With corners Eric Murray and Jalen Myrick returning for another run in 2015 the Gophers need only to replace free safety Derrick Wells to complete the triangle and be ready to attack the rest of the league.
One of the Gophers' favorite coverages for maximizing their three coverage specialists is a variety of cover 4, or "quarters," coverage that asks the nickel and boundary safety to be the run-force defenders:
The nickel and strong safety are run force players on the edge while the corners and free safety are basically in man coverage with the free safety potentially receiving out from the field corner or nickel on quick routes that break inside or out.
Many teams will use this coverage, but Minnesota will often play their free safety as shallow as they can get away with in order to take away the favorite constraint play of the spread offense, the bubble screen:
When an offense can't punish a defense for leaving their slot in so much space the easy way, with perimeter screens, then they have to do it by trying to get the slot open on vertical routes or else by asking their QB to channel Tom Brady and drill precision strikes into the flats. Most of the Big 10 has not mastered these tactics and a really good coverage player at the free safety position can still be hard to attack with options two or three.
The Gophers' rely on building eight man fronts not just because they are a favorite way to outnumber an opposing run game, but because the nature of their Over defensive front depends on it.
As you'll notice in the above diagram, or from the following screen shot of the Minnesota defensive alignment, the Gophers like to play their defensive ends way out on the edge and utilize a "wide-9" technique with the strongside end.
Playing wide defensive ends means that there is an extra gap in the front to defend so the Gophers want their nickel and strong safety to be in as close proximity to the box as possible.
With the eight man front, Kill's squad can get the full benefit of having four aggressive DL charge upfield while four backers behind them converge on the ball. The linebackers are now free to flow hard to the football because the nickel and strong safety are going to arrive quickly to make tackles on ball carriers that are spilled outside or who try to hit the cutback lane:
Lead blockers are almost like beacons for the Gopher linebackers that will invite them to flow really hard and fast to the football as they attack with the comfort of knowing that the nickel or strong safety are filling in behind them.
The departing strong safety Cedric Thompson was the second leading tackler on the team as a result of this strategy while nickelback Briean Boddy Calhoun also had 51 tackles despite being a package player.
This approach can get them into trouble at times because you'll notice that if the free safety and corners are sticking with the removed receivers they aren't available to clean up mistakes and one of the aggressive filling eight in the middle were to blow an assignment or miss a tackle...
This is the risk that Minnesota takes with this strategy.
Having two corners that they trust to play press or off man coverage without help doesn't just allow the Gophers to send LBs and DBs crashing into the line of scrimmage though, it also offers flexibility for bringing man-blitzes or playing a wide variety of different coverages to take away the featured parts of a given offense.
For instance, Minnesota can also play the much more conservative "special" quarters coverage against trips coverages by playing their free safety over the slot in a role normally played by a nickel corner and keeping their lesser coverage players packed in the middle of the field:
In this coverage the defense cancels out the outside "X" receiver with man coverage from the corner and then plays zone coverage against the two slot receivers inside of the X with the free safety playing as the new corner.
Minnesota has a few different coverages they'll play against trips formations by the offense, including some man-blitzes, and they can deploy their nickel and strong safety in different places in accordance with what the situation calls for while the free safety and corners do the heavy lifting in coverage.
If you want a defense to have the flexibility to take away what an offense does best in today's game, it starts with having enough good coverage players on the back end to free up everyone else. The Gophers seem poised to have that again in 2015.
The 2015 Minnesota Gophers
There are three developments that need to occur for Minnesota to make the leap from playing respectable defense to playing great defense.
First, they have to replace free safety Derrick Wells with another player who can be trusted with difficult coverage assignments. Wells wasn't an all Big-10 performer in this regard, but he was steady and it's hard to find a safety that can handle the varying assignments from this position. Essentially a team is looking for a good off-man corner who's also a reliable tackler.
Secondly, they could really stand to have an eraser on the field somewhere who can keep some of the mistakes in run defense, like the Missouri play above, from becoming drive-making plays or touchdowns. Ideally they'd have a free safety, nickel, or strong safety that could run plays down from behind.
Finally, they really need some playmakers along the defensive line. Despite having the opportunity to play in an aggressive scheme that puts the ends in space and allows the tackles to attack the backfield, the Gophers didn't get many impact plays from their starting DL last year. However, there is some youth returning that offers a glimmer of hope.
True freshman nose tackle Steven Richardson was the only player on the roster who's approach to the game came close to embodying the attributes of a gopher as he would tunnel under the blocks of centers and guards and try to kill angles in the backfield with penetration. As a sophomore perhaps he can bring some havoc to opposing offenses.
On the outside Theiren Cockran, a 6'6" 238 pound end, is going to need to improve on his seven tackles for loss and four sacks from a year ago. The ends in this scheme with these corners should be combining for 15+ sacks every season.
Though Murray will graduate after 2015, Myrick should be back one more time for 2016 so there's time for Jerry Kill to build depth at corner and find some athletes that can make hay in the middle of the field in the simplified roles afforded by their coverage outside. In 2015 it'll be interesting to see if any of the new Gophers emerging in the program have the potential to take this program to a new level. Jerry Kill has already built the infrastructure so everything should start to come together soon in Minneapolis.