Sawvel sees room to grow on defense

The Gophers have questions on the back end but are deep at linebacker.

Linebacker Jack Lynn runs a drill during the Gophers spring practice on Thursday afternoon.

Maddy Fox

Linebacker Jack Lynn runs a drill during the Gopher’s spring practice on Thursday afternoon.

by Mike Hendrickson

Gophers defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said he didn’t think the team was that good on defense immediately after the 2015 season.
Then, the former defensive backs coach saw that Minnesota was 24th in the Football Bowl Subdivision in yards allowed per game and 11th in passing yards allowed per game.
“I was shocked when I saw [those stats],” Sawvel said.
Sawvel is still expected to make changes in his first year as the Gophers defensive coordinator, as Minnesota adjusts to having a much younger secondary and its deepest linebacker group in years.
“There’s going to be some tweaks,” Sawvel said. “There’s going to be a few things that’ll be maybe a little bit different than what we’ve done before, but there’s going to be a lot of things that are going to be the same. It’s all personnel-driven.”
One thing the Gophers defense is working to improve on is its play on third down. The team was 89th in the FBS last year in third-down defense after allowing opponents to convert 41.6 percent of the time.
Sawvel said he hopes to get Minnesota’s ranking in the 30s, and it starts with the team’s pass rush. The Gophers finished tied for 84th in the FBS in sacks last year.
Minnesota also faces questions about its ability to cover this season.
Three of the team’s starters in the secondary graduated and the unit is facing injuries to start spring practice.
Safeties Duke McGhee, Ace Rogers and Zo Craighton are out right now, leaving the team with few healthy options in practice. The Gophers also only have four scholarship cornerbacks on campus, though three freshmen defensive backs will arrive in the summer. 
Sawvel said with the back end so unclear, there is no point in drawing up a depth chart.
“We just tell them, ‘Don’t worry about depth chart or what you think you are or where you’re at right now,’” Sawvel said. “We’ll worry about those things towards the end of the spring.”
Senior cornerback Jalen Myrick, who missed the end of the regular season with a rib injury, said he isn’t concerned about the lack of depth at cornerback as the team tries to replace NFL draft prospects Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Eric Murray.
“We’ll be fine. [The cornerbacks] are going to step up. I’ll make sure they step up,” Myrick said. “They don’t want to get embarrassed out there, so I know they’ll be able to step up.”
While Minnesota adjusts in the secondary, the team’s linebackers have emerged as the deepest group on defense. NFL prospect De’Vondre Campbell graduated, but the Gophers will return all of their other key contributors at the position.
Redshirt junior Cody Poock will return at middle linebacker after finishing second on the team in tackles last year, along with redshirt senior Jack Lynn, who was fourth in tackles.
Junior Jonathan Celestin and sophomore Julian Huff also received a lot of playing time last year.
The linebackers will add to their depth in the summer when freshmen Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin join the team. Sawvel said he is excited about both signees.
“[The linebacker group] is deeper than it has ever been,” Lynn said. “We had a lot of young guys step up last year. Right now it’s really deep.”