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2015 Citrus Bowl: Minnesota's defensive strength is a lack of weaknesses

Minnesota's defense is active in the back seven and plays at a top-50 level against run and pass, but the Gophers' biggest strength might be their overall lack of defensive weakness.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Some quick stats before we dive into the depth chart:

  • Minnesota ranks 42nd overall in Def. F/+.
  • The Gophers' defense is 59th in raw success rate (efficiency) and 27th in IsoPPP (explosiveness). That's a rough "bend don't break" sketch right there, though the secondary does manage to play pretty aggressively, maybe too aggressively for the bend-don't-break moniker.
  • Minnesota is 32nd in Standard Downs S&P+ and 40th in Passing Dons S&P+. As a whole, the Gophers don't rank too high or too low in many measures. They are steadily solid.
  • Remember Havoc Rate? Tackles for loss, forced fumbles, and passes defensed divided by total plays? Minnesota is 29th overall in Havoc Rate at 18.1%. (Mizzou is 31st at 17.9%.) Most of this comes from the secondary -- the Gophers are 59th in Front 7 Havoc and 16th in DB Havoc.
  • As discussed on Sunday, the line stats are ... fine. Again, Minnesota is not particularly great at anything, not bad at anything (except rushing the passer).

There. That sets the table.

DE
Theiren Cockran (6'6, 255, Jr.) (15.0 tackles, 5.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 2 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR)
Gaelin Elmore (6'6, 268, Fr.) (8.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.0 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR, 1 PBU)

DT
Cameron Botticelli (6'5, 290, Sr.) (22.5 tackles, 9.0 TFL, 3.0 sacks, 1 hurry)
Andrew Stelter (6'4, 265, Fr.) (1.5 tackles)

NT
Steven Richardson (6'0, 291, Fr.) (15.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks, 1 FF)
Robert Ndondo-Lay (6'5, 260, Jr.) (13.0 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks)

DE
Michael Amaefula (6'2, 249, Sr.) (16.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 FF, 1 FR)
Hank Ekpe (6'5, 251, So.) (10.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks)
Alex Keith (6'3, 245, Jr.) (6.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 FF, 2 FR)

Minnesota does benefit a bit from the unexpected. There is not a single dominant pass rusher or run stuffer on the line (though Botticelli is pretty damn good), but everybody has made at least a small handful of plays. Botticelli aside, there are no particular strengths or weaknesses. (I'm saying that a lot, aren't I...)

LB
De'Vondre Campbell (6'5, 241, Jr.) (58.5 tackles, 6.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 1 PBU, 3 FR)
Jonathan Celestin (6'1, 209, Fr.) (13.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 1 FF)

LB
Damien Wilson (6'2, 240, Sr.) (84.0 tackles, 10.5 TFL, 4.0 sacks, 1 INT, 3 PBU, 1 FF, 2 FR, 1 hurry)
Everett Williams (6'1, 230, Fr.) (2.5 tackles, 1 PBU)

LB
Jack Lynn (6'3, 238, So.) (41.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 FF, 1 FR)
De'Niro Laster (6'4, 230, RSFr.) (5.5 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 0.5 sacks)

The talent level picks up here. Damien Wilson was second-team all-Big Ten and showed some solid versatility in logging four sacks, 6.5 non-sack TFLs, and four passes defensed. And both De'Vondre Campbell and Jack Lynn showed similarly diverse skill sets. This is a solid corps. And it's hard not to notice the forced fumbles -- they combined for six, along with five recoveries. They're always around the ball.

There's almost no depth here -- the Gophers have played three guys, with a smidge of Celestin mixed in. But that only matters if one of the three gets hurt.

CB
Eric Murray (6'0, 195, Jr.) (51.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 INT, 7 PBU, 1 FR)
Jalen Myrick (5'10, 209, So.) (18.5 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 INT, 7 PBU, 1 FF, 1 hurry)

CB
Derrick Wells (6'0, 201, Sr.) (30.5 tackles, 3 PBU)
Briean Boddy-Calhoun (5'11, 190, Jr.) (41.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL, 4 INT, 8 PBU, 2 FF, 1 FR)
Craig James (5'10, 175, Fr.) (5.0 tackles, 3 PBU)

S
Cedric Thompson (6'0, 208, Sr.) (63.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL, 2 INT, 1 PBU, 2 FF)
Antonio Johnson (6'0, 209, Jr.) (24.0 tackles, 1.0 TFL, 1 INT, 3 PBU)

S
Damarius Travis (6'2, 211, Jr.) (44.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 INT, 5 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR)
Grayson Levine (5'11, 210, Sr.) (6.5 tackles)

A good portion of Minnesota's Havoc Rate comes from passes defensed. As you see here, the five cornerbacks listed here have combined for six picks and 28 break-ups. Two of them (Boddy-Calhoun and Murray) were second-team all-conference. They're going to get their hands on passes, and you have to hope that doesn't result in turnovers.

You're going to have to catch passes in traffic to move the ball; that's not always a problem for Bud Sasser and the Mizzou receiving corps ... but it has certainly been an occasional issue. And knowing Maty Mauk's "don't throw until you see them open" tendency, it's not hard to see Scramblin' Maty making an appearance perhaps more than we'd like.

Special Teams

K
Ryan Santoso (6'6, 245, RSFr.) (43-44 PAT, 8-9 FG under 40, 3-8 FG over 40; 66 kickoffs, 35 touchbacks)

P
Peter Mortell (6'2, 192, Jr.) (62 punts, 45.5 average, 15 fair caught, 24 inside 20)

KR
Jalen Myrick (5'10, 209, So.) (17 returns, 26.5 average, 1 TD)

PR
Craig James (5'10, 175, Fr.) (15 returns, 8.6 average)

Some more stats for you: according to Brian Fremeau's special teams efficiency ratings, Minnesota's special teams unit ranks ninth overall: 14th in kick return efficiency, 14th in punt efficiency, 21st in kickoff efficiency, 23rd in punt return efficiency, and 110th in field goal efficiency. For comparison, Missouri, once in the top 15, is 45th overall -- 20th in kick returns, 36th in field goals, 39th in punt returns, 81st in punts, and 102nd in kickoffs. Mizzou's kicks and punts regressed in November, and if you give Jalen Myrick in particular a chance to break a big KR, he will.