MINNEAPOLIS — University of Minnesota Defensive Coordinator Joe Rossi is excited about his unit this fall.
"I love these guys. They're engaged, they work hard, they're energetic. Their response to a mistake, and how they take coaching and how they go about their business, I love their process, said Rossi.
The Gophers ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense, rush defense, pass defense, and scoring defense last season and with seven starters back this fall, optimism is high they can once again attain those standards.
"We've got a bunch of different skill sets, I've been pleased with how they're working," said Rossi.
The biggest question mark entering this fall is how they'll replace two key pieces from last year’s defensive line in NFL draft picks Boye Mafe (Seahawks, 2nd round, 40th overall) and Esezi Otomewo (Vikings, 5th round, 165th overall).
Defensive end Thomas Rush will anchor one end spot; his 5.5 sacks last season were second on the team, playing a huge role in the Gophers limiting opponents to just 17.3 points per game last fall, sixth-best in the NCAA.
"He's (Rush) continuing to play hard, he's continuing to be physical, I've seen him continue to make some gains rushing the passer," said Rossi.
Minnesota will have one of the best linebacker tandems in the Big Ten Conference this fall with the return of multi-year starting linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin (2nd on team with 85 tackles last season), along with Braelen Oliver, who overcame a serious injury in 2020 to post 20 tackles last fall.
"He's (Oliver) really matured, he's taking ownership, not only of himself, but other guys on the team. He's playing really hard, he's locked into meetings," said Rossi.
Behind that duo will be a veteran secondary. Justin Walley holds one of the cornerback spots after earning true freshman All-American honors last fall. Terrell Smith is a veteran opposite Walley who started seven games last season. The secondary will be led by a dynamic safety duo in Jordan Howden (12 starts, 43 tackles last season) and All-Big Ten Conference senior Tyler Nubin, who hauled in a team-high three interceptions last fall.
"We always knew he was going to become a really, really good player and he is, he's a special player, and he's a leader and he works hard,” said Rossi.
With a lot of veteran experience returning at all levels of the defense, hopes are high within the program they can sustain that top-ten defensive success they achieved last fall.
“They're a joy to coach," said Rossi.
Minnesota kicks off the season at home on Thursday, Sept. 1 against former head coach Jerry Kill and New Mexico State at 8 p.m. on Big Ten Network.
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