MINNEAPOLIS - Big Ten Media Days are over, and Monday is report day for the University of Minnesota football team.
The Gophers start fall camp next week, and the first practice open to the public will be next Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium. It’s FAMILY Day, after Minnesota’s Spring Game had to be closed to the public due to inclement weather.
Minnesota enters the 2022 season with high expectations. PJ Fleck is 35-23 in five seasons, including 21-22 in Big Ten play and 3-0 in bowl games. The Gophers went 9-4 last season, ending it by beating Wisconsin and then Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. But there was meat left on the bone after losses to Bowling Green, Illinois and Iowa.
Minnesota won nine games last year in large part to its defense. The Gophers finished No. 3 in the country in total defense, No. 8 in rushing defense and No. 6 in scoring defense. With that, here’s five defensive players to watch this season:
Mariano Sori-Marin is one of the veterans of the Gophers’ defense, and he’s the epitome of Fleck’s "failure is growth" mantra. He had his struggles as a young linebacker staying in gaps and missing tackles, but is now a captain of the defense and is the unit’s top returning tackler, and was one of the player representatives at Big ten Media Days. He made 85 stops in 13 starts last year, including five tackles for loss, one interception and two forced fumbles. He was an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention pick, and Fleck will lean on the veteran to lead the defense this season.
Tyler Nubin might be one of the most improved players on Minnesota’s defense. Joining Sori-Marin as the other defensive player at Big Ten Media Days, Nubin was third for the Gophers last year with 52 tackles in 13 starts. He led the secondary with three interceptions, and had one sack. He was also the Defensive MVP of the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.
He’s gotten better each season, and pairing with Jordan Howden should make them one of the top safety duos in the Big Ten.
There are a lot of questions along the defensive line as the 2022 season starts, but Thomas Rush isn’t one of them. The fifth-year senior has improved each season, and the rush end finished 2021 with 31 tackles, 7.5 for loss and was second on the defense with 5.5 sacks in 13 starts. With Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo off to the NFL, Rush will be called onto step up on the defensive line.
CODY LINDENBERG/JOSH AUNE
They’re both Minnesota high school products, and both are coming off injuries that ended their 2021 seasons. Cody Lindenberg out of Anoka had 10 tackles in six games as a freshman in 2020. Last year, he had one tackle against Ohio State and two against Colorado before missing the rest of the season. Aune, out of St. Paul Highland Park, made 11 tackles in seven games as a sophomore in 2020. He missed all of last season, and is back healthy. The Gophers need a third linebacker behind Sori-Marin and Braelin Oliver, and both Aune and Lindenberg could get looks.
Justin Walley may have been a freshman in the Gophers’ secondary last season, but he certainly didn’t play like it. He had 29 tackles in 13 starts, had one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and seven pass break-ups. He made arguably his biggest play of the season with an interception against Wisconsin, which led to a go-ahead touchdown in the rivalry win.
He's one of the leading returners in the secondary, and among a group that includes Terrell Smith, and transfers Beanie Bishop and Ryan Stapp. They could be one of the better secondaries in the Big Ten.
Football season is almost here, and it’s as good a year as any for the Gophers to contend in the Big Ten West.