As Gophers’ head coach P.J. Fleck looked ahead to the future, he knew he needed to make a change defensively. It was time for him to decide whether defensive coordinator Robb Smith’s scheme was one he desired. Since the defense failed to improve under Smith’s direction, Fleck clearly felt like he had to make a change.
After allowing 646 yards in a 55-31 loss to Illinois, the Gophers relieved defensive coordinator Robb Smith of his duties. Defensive line coach Joe Rossi will serve as the interim defensive coordinator. Rossi coordinated Rutgers’ defense for two seasons from 2014-15.
The Gophers’ defense has allowed 43 points per game in six Big Ten matchups this season and have been unable to prevent explosive plays. They have surrendered 31 touchdowns and the average length of those scores is 35 yards. In addition, opposing teams are averaging 492 total yards per game over the same span.
Under the direction of Robb Smith, opponents scored 509 points in 15 total Big Ten games (33.9 points per game). In terms of total yardage, Big Ten opponents averaged 426.5 yards per game against Smith’s defenses. Of course, some of the defensive issues are related to personnel issues in the secondary. However, he was unable to adapt and find a way to take advantage of key veterans on the defense.
In the 55-31 loss to Illinois, Minnesota’s experienced linebackers were missing run fits, out of position and letting their eyes wander into the backfield. It has been a theme all season and has forced defensive backs to make difficult one-on-one tackles in space. All three of those linebackers were key contributors during the team’s 2016 Holiday Bowl run. Their collective performance has continually regressed as they’ve been out of position and struggling to make the correct reads. In last week’s game, linebackers were just running to the ball, which placed them out of alignment. It meant defensive backs were forced to make really difficult tackles in space. It’s unclear what is really causing such inconsistent play recognition and diagnosis by a veteran group of linebackers. On each of the first two 72-yard rushing touchdowns, a linebacker did not have the correct run fit and it resulted in long touchdown scores.
Minnesota currently does not have a true linebackers coach. Defensive coordinator Robb Smith was coaching the group along with help from other assistants. Joe Rossi will now handle those duties until the season ends. P.J. Fleck will need to strongly consider adding a linebackers coach that gives the group 100 percent attention in practice. Perhaps he may consider offering former position coach Mike Sherels an opportunity to return. A former player in the program from 2003-2007, Sherels also coached linebackers for three seasons at Minnesota. He was not initially retained and battled health issues throughout his last year in the program. Sherels knows this area very well and has proven he can coach and recruit at a high level. With the recent NCAA expansion to ten assistants, he is one candidate the team could consider if they want to add a position coach.
Of course, everything centers around the defensive scheme, but having consistent focus at every position group is necessary for a defense. It helps aid player development and gives instant, tailored feedback to players each week. The regression associated with this position could be slightly centered around currently over compensating for other mistakes, but adjustments have to be made.
Strong defenses center around run fits, gap integrity and the ability to maintain discipline when deception is used. Teams have spread the field and forced the Gophers’ defense to align correctly. When they haven’t, it’s forced the second level players to make tackles in space. Those situations have resulted in missed tackles and big plays. It’s why spread offenses featuring athletic quarterbacks have gashed the Gophers’ defense so much. With personnel, scheme and coaching all playing a role in the defensive issues, P.J. Fleck will need to evaluate everything following this season.
Minnesota will now have the opportunity to watch Joe Rossi coordinate over the final three games to see if he is a viable candidate for next season. He has become the interim defensive coordinator for Robb Smith during three different stops together. Fleck said small tweaks might occur with Rossi calling plays, but larger schematic changes aren’t going to occur with just three games remaining.
“They’ll be some things that change, they’ll be some things that don’t change, they’ll be some things that he does just personality wise. When there’s a new coordinator, a new personality calling different things, that can change that up as well,” Fleck said. “Very difficult to change so much schematics in three weeks, that’s not what this is about, this is about moving forward into the future.
Of course, the direction this team heads at the coordinator position will dictate other staffing additions or subtractions they make. P.J. Fleck said Rossi will coordinate the defense over the final three games and he will evaluate everything at the end of this season. Fleck will likely look outside the program for young, up-and-coming options in an innovative game. With so many conference teams built around blowing teams away with athleticism and explosive plays, the Gophers will need to find the right scheme. Minnesota currently runs a 4-3 defense with a hybrid rush end position serving as the primary defensive alignment.
Based upon recruiting, the Gophers will likely search for coaches with 4-3 scheme backgrounds. Minnesota has already landed four edge talents that fit this defensive strategy. However, if they can find a creative mind with exposure to multiple systems, they might step outside the box. In fact, it makes sense because some of the best defensive coordinators are able to adapt their scheme to specific players. Appalachian State defensive coordinator Bryan Brown is a name to monitor closely. A young, innovative mind with experience in a variety of different schemes, Brown has developed one of the top defensive backfields in the country.
He previously served as the cornerbacks coach and was promoted to defensive coordinator this season. Brown also worked in player development under P.J. Fleck’s mentor, Greg Schiano, at Rutgers. With Brown’s instruction, App State ranks second nationally with 56 interceptions since the start of the 2015 season. His unit is also in the top-15 of total defense as teams struggle to handle his aggressive coverage schemes. Brown currently runs a 3-4 scheme, but it’s extremely unique and innovative, especially with coverages. He is the type of creative mind that would align well with P.J. Fleck.
A future post will highlight potential candidates and Brown’s defense specifically, but there’s no doubting Fleck made the right decision this week. He understands the future defensive coordinator hire will define his tenure in Minnesota, especially considering his young offense is already showing strides just two years into his tenure.