Defensive line excels behind performance from true freshman

by Mike Hendrickson

There was one number that stood out to defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel after the season opener: 14.

The Gophers had a total of 14 quarterback hits against Oregon State, Sawvel said. He estimates that the Gophers averaged around 4.5 a game last year.

Overall, the defense ended the day with two turnovers and four sacks. All came from the defensive line.

“If the quarterback could throw with a halo around him, then we’re not providing enough pressure,” Sawvel said. “If the halo bursts on him and things are near him, then we’ve got chances to disrupt things and make the ball come out a lot quicker, and that was really the positive of the first game. They couldn’t hold the ball, [and] if they held the ball, [the quarterback] was going to get hit.”

Creating pressure on Oregon State’s offensive line was a key part of Minnesota’s win, as freshman defensive end Tai’yon Devers forced both turnovers that led to offensive touchdowns for the Gophers.

Senior defensive end Hank Ekpe said there were a lot of things that Devers did well Thursday night.

“His speed, his takeoff and mainly just his dipping the corner and running around the edge is what I saw,” Ekpe said. “His speed, not only to get around the edge, but also the run after the quarterback.”

Devers was only around 185 pounds when he enrolled at Minnesota earlier this year, head coach Tracy Claeys said. The freshman is now listed at 215 pounds.

Claeys said that Devers began to excel over the summer and during fall camp.

“He just kept making plays off the edge, and so I think he can help us in that regard,” Claeys said. “I hope that as time goes on, he gains a little bit more weight and can be more of an every down type of player.”

The defensive line made some adjustments in the second half that got Devers more involved in the game until he was ejected in the fourth quarter for targeting on Oregon State’s quarterback.

The defensive line added one more sack in the fourth quarter and only allowed 89 rushing yards in the game.

“He definitely was more in the rotation in the second half so as the stand up defensive end, he was more on the left side. That was an adjustment,” Ekpe said. “We mainly made some changes and made some packages to keep him in the game because he was playing a very great game.”

Along with the hit that got him ejected, Sawvel said Devers made another mistake when the Gophers had him in at outside linebacker.

Devers didn’t peel back with the Oregon State running back and the Beavers were able to gain 15 yards, Sawvel said.

“When you have a guy that’s a freshman and you say what he’s got to work on, he’s got to work on everything,” Sawvel said. “It’s still a continual process. It’s just exciting he’s got that kind of talent.”