Minnesota is not expected to be a defensive juggernaut. Let’s get that out of the way first. I could pick and choose stats all day long, but a few jumped out to me from their 2020 season: 206.7 opponent rushing yards/gm (99th in the county), 4.00% sack rate (114th), and 64.06% opponent completion percentage (92nd). On paper, you’re basically telling me they struggle to stop the run, they don’t pressure the quarterback, and the opponent is able to complete a high percentage of their passes due to said lack of pressure.
In reality, the 2020 version of the Golden Gophers lost a lot of talent from their 2019 defense (recurring theme for Minnesota). Antoine Winfield Jr. was an All-World defensive back, and Carter Coughlin could get after the quarterback. Similar to the offense, Minnesota’s defense was attempting to fill major holes from the previous season, and went up against a pandemic during an effort to do so. I am still not intimidated by what they do have coming back in 2021, but there are some good players on that side of the ball.
Guys like Coney Durr and Jordan Howden are returning starters in Minnesota’s secondary, and they will be tasked with trying to stop Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, and others… average DBs, so don’t count on them being able to shut down Ohio State’s passing attack.
Boye Mafe is a breakout candidate at defensive end, but his production has not yet matched the hype. Eight sacks in 29 games (1/4 of which came against Illinois last year) means he is a capable pass rusher — not Lawrence Taylor. Additionally, P.J. Fleck brought in transfers to try and give his defense a much-needed boost, including former Clemson defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney. One of those transfers — and the player on Minnesota’s defense who could have a big impact on the unit as a whole — is newcomer Jack Gibbens.
Gibbens is a graduate transfer from Abilene Christian, and he may end up “quarterbacking” the Golden Gophers defense. He brings a ton of experience to a unit that struggled last year, and looks the part of a solid Big Ten linebacker. He also has the instincts and the intelligence to anchor a defense, as evidenced by his inclusion among the 2020 Campbell Trophy finalists. The Campbell Trophy has been nicknamed the “Academic Heisman,” and is open to FBS, FCS, and lower-division athletes. Gibbens has enough brain and brawn so that he should not be overwhelmed by his transition to the Big Ten.
Gibbens played four years at Abilene Christian, starting his final three. He somewhat surprisingly never earned all-conference honors (only Honorable Mention in 2018), but was productive nonetheless. He racked up 104 tackles as a junior in 2019, and totaled 22.5 tackles for loss, including seven sacks, and five interceptions during his time as a starter. He is coming off of a strong overall season in 2020 as well, albeit one that was shortened due to the pandemic. In six games, he accumulated 49 tackles, to go with 4.5 TFL, two sacks, two fumble recoveries, one interception, and one forced fumble. He was a force all over the field, and will bring some serious thump for the Golden Gophers.
The former Wildcat is 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds of bad intentions. He is one of, if not the biggest, linebackers on Minnesota’s team. Not that size is everything at the linebacker position, especially when going up against modern offenses, but Gibbens is no small dude. He has the ability to lay out a Buckeye ball carrier if the opportunity arises. Furthermore, he has played in certain pass-rushing packages during his career, so he could be used to create pressure on C.J. Stroud with a timely blitz. He is not a blazer (4.7+ speed), but at his size, all he needs is the element of surprise.
It is difficult to be too intimidated by, or concerned with, any player from a defense that performed so poorly last year, however, Joe Rossi’s unit has experienced plenty of success since he was named the interim defensive coordinator in 2018. He will also have the benefit of a traditional offseason. Sure, the talent was at a higher level in 2019, when they ranked tenth in total defense, but it’s not as if the Minnesota coaches abandoned the scheme(s) they had success with. They just lost talent… and a lot of it.
Gibbens brings a certain maturity to the Minnesota defense, and he is a proven playmaker. If he can direct traffic in the middle of the field, the Gophers’ experienced secondary stands a better chance of keeping the Ohio State wide receivers in-check. If the secondary holds its own, Mafe will have more time to penetrate the line of scrimmage. OSU has not had the luxury of their own defense being directed by a field general recently (or at least not a good one), but Minnesota might have an impact leader in Gibbens.
Gibbens’ role is still up in the air, so identifying him as a player to watch out for is a bit risky. However, if you look back at what Minnesota did on defense last year, should we feel confident about anybody else outside of perhaps Mafe? Remember, Mafe will be going against Thayer Munford, Nicholas Petit-Frere, or Dawand Jones — not Illinois. Even if Gibbens is part of a rotation, he is already more experienced (and I would say more proven, despite the level of competition) than his peers.
Minnesota’s defense should be improved in 2021… they almost have to be. Much like Oho State, they were breaking in a lot of new starters and were forced to deal with unusual circumstances last year. I still like the Buckeyes to put up 35 plus, but keep an eye on Gibbens. He could bring a much-needed stability to their linebacker rotation, and his presence should be a positive for the Golden Gophers.