Photo: University of Minnesota
by: Daniel House (@DanielHouseNFL)
Consistent defensive back play is one of the most important aspects of success. In 2019, Minnesota’s secondary proved it could handle difficult challenges.
The Gophers have built a depth chart headlined by players with unique physical profiles. Last season, their cornerbacks adequately handled man coverage situations and forced quarterbacks to make tight-window throws. Cornerbacks Coney Durr and Benjamin St-Juste quickly became key players on the perimeter. The duo’s athletic skill sets allowed defensive coordinator Joe Rossi to deploy aggressive coverage and pressure packages.
Durr is a superb athlete with smooth technique and footwork. He frequently got into passing lanes and made aggressive tackles on the perimeter. St-Juste, a graduate transfer from Michigan, also burst onto the scene in his first season with the Gophers. At 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, he frequently uses his length and play strength to get into passing lanes. St. Juste moves very well laterally and is sticky in man coverage. When he committed to the Gophers, we knew the program was adding another prospect with intriguing athleticism. Entering the collegiate ranks, St-Juste ran a staggering 3.86 shuttle at the Opening Finals. When evaluating his testing, St-Juste’s metrics closely mirror 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman’s combine numbers. His shuttle metric is also in the top percentile among players with his measurements. Each week, there is no doubt Minnesota’s scheme is maximizing St-Juste’s unique athletic profile, including his above average agility metrics.
In addition to St-Juste and Durr’s skill sets, Chris Williamson’s versatility created additional schematic flexibility. Williamson was a very physical player around the box and had the athletic traits to match up against shifty Big Ten slot receivers. During his career in Minnesota, Williamson was heavily featured in game plans against K.J. Hamer and Rondale Moore. His unique playing style in the nickel package added another key element to the defense.
Creating a Defensive Back Tool Box
Diverse playing styles allow defensive coaches to make weekly adjustments. In 2019, Minnesota had a variety of different cornerback skill sets in its tool box. For example, against physical wide receivers, the Gophers utilized cornerbacks with length and play strength. In other instances, dynamic slot weapons were handled by fluid, shifty and versatile cornerbacks. Many people often believe length is the most important trait for a cornerback. However, it is equally critical to have a mix of playing styles. If coaches want to find answers for every type of wide receiver profile, they need to create a diverse “tool box.”
In 2019, the Gophers’ defensive back room featured a wide range of skill sets. Durr’s athleticism and fluid movement skills were key last season. When Minnesota needed to handle big wide receivers, St-Juste had the physical skills to conquer the challenge. Additionally, Williamson’s versatility allowed Rossi to design creative nickel coverage packages, including blitzes. When Minnesota needed to send additional pressure in the front seven, Rossi had the confidence to man up on the perimeter.
Analyzing the Metrics
The Gophers’ pass defense was a driving force behind many of the team’s top performances in 2019. At the midway point of last season, Minnesota held opposing offenses to negative Expected Points Added (EPA) per pass play values in four consecutive games, according to College Football Data. During a 52-10 win over Maryland, the Terrapins averaged just -0.97 EPA per passing play. Minnesota’s cornerbacks consistently forced Tyrrell Pigrome and Tyler DeSue to make difficult tight-window throws. When the Gophers’ defense was at its peak, the pass defense clicked. Not to mention, the team’s pass rush often directly benefited from tight downfield coverage.
In the graph above, you will notice Minnesota held opponents to five negative EPA per pass play outputs. All year, there was a strong correlation between quality defensive back play and success. For example, three pass breakups in the final stages of Minnesota’s 31-26 win over Penn State, quietly became season-defining plays.
Conversely, the matchup against Wisconsin was easily Minnesota’s worst performance in the backend. During the final four games of 2019, the Gophers’ pass defense regressed each week. In many of these contests, the pass rush didn’t create much havoc, either. I firmly believe a team’s coverage and pass rush units are directly connected. In order to take the next step as a defense, the Gophers must find a way to generate pressure without blitzing.
The past few recruiting classes have certainly included defensive line investments. If the team can consistently generate pressure with just four rushers, the scheme will continue to expand in different ways. I will be deeply diving into this concept during upcoming analytics pieces.
The 2020 Outlook
Entering 2020, Durr and St-Juste are going to be cornerstones of the Gophers’ defense. Minnesota has the physicality and cover skills needed to slow passing attacks. However, after the top two players, the coaches will be relying upon young players.
Junior Terell Smith is the team’s primary backup at cornerback. Two years ago, as a true freshman, Smith was learning technique on the fly. Despite that, he displayed his transition quickness and broke up nine passes in 2018.
The biggest question is how the team will replace Chris Williamson. His versatility became an integral component of Rossi’s scheme. Right now, senior Justus Harris is probably the top candidate to fill Williamson’s role. Harris has primarily been a key special teams contributor, but saw limited defensive action early in his career. He is a physical cornerback with a powerful build. In 2018, head coach P.J. Fleck said Harris posted a 41-inch vertical at 5-foot-10, 185 pounds. His athletic traits are intriguing for a player who will be tasked with covering some of the nation’s most dynamic slot receivers. If Harris doesn’t win the job, converted wide receiver Phillip Howard may compete for reps inside. Howard quickly learned defensive back techniques and played in 11 games last year. It’s also worth keeping an eye on incoming freshmen Jalen Glaze and Miles Fleming as potential rotational candidates.
Overall, the Gophers have key experience returning on the perimeter. Last season, we saw how much quality defensive back play contributed to the program’s success. When cornerbacks were disruptive and challenging throws, the defense reached its peak performance level.
Now, looking ahead, the Gophers’ defense is getting faster, especially in the front seven. The combination of team speed and sticky cover corners will create even more scheme possibilities for Rossi’s defense.