MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota football team held its second practice of the spring season open to the public on Saturday, and fans at Athletes Village were treated to a day largely dominated by the defense.
The Gophers had a defensive unit last year that finished in the top-10 in the country in total yardage allowed and points allowed, and was third in the Big Ten in rushing defense. They’ll have a mix of returning veterans and new faces at every level for the 2022 season.
Here were a few defensive highlights from Saturday’s session:
- Beanie Bishop, a Western Kentucky transfer, intercepted a Tanner Morgan deep pass during an individual drill.
- Ryan Stapp, an Abilene Christian transfer, had a pass break-up on a play in the end zone during a team session.
- Michael Dixon had a tackle for loss in a team drill, with the offense pinned deep in its own end, that forced a punt.
- PJ Fleck put his defense in consecutive 4th-and-goal plays at the 1-yard line. The first ended with a Zach Evans fumble. The second ended with Austin Booker flying around edge and making a tackle for loss.
- Tanner Morgan led the offense down the field in a team situation, a drive that ended with a sack by the defense and Dragan Kesich making a field goal.
- The defense had one injury scare on Saturday. Braelin Oliver collided with Daniel Jackson on a Morgan pass attempt. Jackson got up after a few seconds. Oliver stayed down for a few minutes before getting up under his own power. He watched the rest of practice without a helmet.
Overall, a successful day for the defense while Chris Autman-Bell, Michael Brown-Stephens, Brevyn Spann-Ford and even Nick Kallerup all had their moments for the day on offense.
Linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin says the Gophers’ defense is now putting its work in the weight room during the winter to work on the field.
"I just like how we’re working on our toughness. We knew we were going to be fast, now it’s time to apply it to football. We had an awesome winter, we got bigger, faster, stronger, now it’s time to apply it to football. I’m just really excited at how tough we’ve been playing," Sori-Marin said. "There’s just so much speed and athleticism in this defense. There’s so much we can do, we just have to focus on the details."
Autman-Bell has to go against it every day in practice.
"We’ve got some ball players on the defensive side, as you guys can see. Even with Flip (Dixon), that’s my guy. He looks just like Davante Adams, just at DB. They got some ball players over there, man. They challenge me every day," Autman-Bell said.
The Gophers appear to be on the verge of major talent at every level of the defense. Trill Carter and Thomas Rush lead the defensive line. Sori-Marin and Oliver lead the linebackers, with Josh Aune and Cody Lindenberg each back healthy. Dixon is all over the field at several positions.
But the talk of spring practice is about the secondary. They have veterans back in Jordan Howden and Tyler Nubin at safety, and Terrell Smith at corner. Justin Walley had a standout freshman season at defensive back. The Gophers have brought in Stapp and Bishop at defensive back. It might be the deepest and most talented secondary Fleck has had.
Could it be the best in the nation?
"The expectation is that they’re going to be one of the best secondaries in the country, and they know that. You can see that in the way they work," Sori-Marin said.
The Gophers have a total of 14 spring practices before the April 30 Spring Game at Huntington Bank Stadium.