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Gophers defensive line’s personalities befitting a reality TV show

Minnesota has a plethora of personalities this season, from grizzled “old heads” to talkative youngsters and an array of jokesters.

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Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive lineman Thomas Rush (8) and defensive lineman Boye Mafe (34) combine on sack of Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Brendon Lewis (12) in the first quarter of their Sept. 18, 2021, game at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colorado. Ron Chenoy / USA Today Sports
USA TODAY Sports

When Chad Wilt is asked what he does for a living, he adds a bit of intrigue after sharing that he’s a defensive line coach.

“I tell them it’s the guys that are not quite right in the head — at least if they’re any good,” the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ D-Line coach said of the young men he works with.

It takes character to play in the trenches — where double-teams test a player’s willingness to do the dirty work and resolve to come back for more — and often times it helps to be a character off the field. Minnesota has a plethora of personalities this season, from grizzled “old heads” to talkative youngsters and an array of jokesters.

“If we had a reality TV show, it would just be on the D-Line,” rush end Boye Mafe said. “… Within two weeks of practice, you could get a whole (TV) season’s content.”

Minnesota's compelling content creators can make a different kind of reality TV when Minnesota (6-3, 4-2 Big Ten) plays Iowa (7-2, 4-2) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. The winner takes charge of the Big Ten West and grabs the Floyd of Rosedale rivalry trophy.

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Minnesota’s D-Line will have its hands full with All-American center Tyler Linderbaum leading an Iowa offense that wants to run the ball with tailback Tyler Goodson. The Gophers' D-Line also can be a pest, with Hawkeyes quarterback Alex Padilla expected to make his first collegiate start.

The Gophers program has worked diligently to keep thoughts of that bronzed pig trophy front and center. In training camp, speakers around the practice field blared squealing sounds as the Gophers conducted their “pig pen” inside-run drill. At its root, the drill emphasizes the importance of the running game to win the West.

Gophers head coach, P.J. Fleck is 0-4 against Iowa, and to help end that streak he added two defensive tackles in the transfer portal for more depth this season: Nyles Pinckney from Clemson and Val Martin from North Carolina State.

Fleck said this D-Line is the “best” he’s had at Minnesota. “I’m not afraid to say that,” Fleck shared after a 34-16 win over Maryland in late October. “That is no disrespect — don’t say I disrespected somebody for saying that. … I just think the talent, the skill, how connected they are and the depth of them” make this year’s line stand out.

The Gophers primarily rotate eight defensive linemen, effectively two at each of the four positions along its base front. Each of the eight linemen has played at least 27 percent of snaps this season but no more than 65 percent.

“We are fresher than at this time in years past,” defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said. “There is not the nicks and the bumps and the wear and tear that maybe would be had in a traditional year where you weren’t rotating so many guys. I think you will see that is beneficial for us in the last stretch.”

Mafe is Minnesota's highest-graded player (79.6), according Pro Football Focus College this season. He has played 329 snaps this season (60 percent) and has a team-highs of 29 pressures and six sacks.

Mafe said knowing Thomas Rush, who is second on the team with 20 pressures and 5.5 sacks, will mix in allows Mafe to give more on each play.

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“You’re not waiting because of, ‘Oh, it’s early in the game, I have to play the whole game,’ ” Mafe said. “There is none of that. You let it all go all the time because you always know whoever is coming in will let you be able to catch your breath. … Someone steps in and has that same energy.”

Pinckney is the most experienced player up front with a stunning 64 games played, including 55 at Clemson before transferring to Minnesota in January.

“I feel like we have a bunch of different guys that are funny and enjoy being around each other,” he said. “I feel like that is a big thing. I feel like my role is to be the old head and sit back and watch and laugh and kind of get my little two cents of wiseness in. Sometimes I will crack a joke here and there. Most of the times I like to watch and laugh. That is the kind of guy I am.”

If the reality TV show had a focal point, Pinckney said it would be Rashad Cheney or Trill Carter. Meanwhile, Mafe said he tries to “keep everybody lighthearted and on the same mission.”

The eight primary D-Linemen have a career average of 36.8 games played, including Micah Dew-Treadway’s 49 games, including 21 at Notre Dame, and Martin’s 30, with 22 at NC State.

With Mafe, Rush and Esezi Otomewo having at least played 38 games apiece, this array of experience helps in the film room when they get down to business. Wilt has seen the vets teach the younger guys, which helps reinforce the elementary teaching points for both groups. “Then I can coach them on the graduate level things,” he said.

A testament to success on the D-Line is whether linebackers can roam free behind them, and that’s been true for Minnesota’s Top 15 scoring defense this year. Mariano Sori-Marin leads the team with 65 tackles, and Jack Gibbens has 60.

“It’s acknowledging that what they are doing is making the plays and telling them every time that I make a tackle it is because they were taking on a block,” Gibbens said. “So it’s making sure after every play that I’m not just celebrating by myself.”

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Wilt has been a defensive line coach at Army, Cincinnati, Maryland, Virginia and elsewhere since 2001, so he knows how the D-line room is unique at other places, too.

“When I was at West Point … all the coaches lived on campus, and the linebacker coach had his players over for dinner one night and I had the D-linemen over and we were next-door neighbors,” Wilt recalled. “They are sitting out in the backyard, and we are sitting out in the backyard. They have dinner and his players are gone at 7:30-8 and my guys are there until 10.

“Everywhere I’ve been the D-line has a unique set of personalities,” Wilt continued. “They are a little edgier, they aren’t off-culture or anything, but they have personality and energy.”

Rossi, who previously coached Minnesota's D-line, backed up Wilt’s perspective, adding cornerback is really the only other spot on the defense with a different sort of juice.

Wilt said it’s an “understatement” to say this Minnesota D-Line has personality befitting a reality show.

“They are all pretty out there,” he said. “It’s a good thing I’m already bald.”

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Minnesota Golden Gophers defensive lineman Esezi Otomewo (left) celebrates his sack against the Illinois Fighting Illini with linebacker Thomas Rush (8) during a November 2020 game in Champaign, Illinois. Patrick Gorski / USA Today Sports
USA TODAY Sports

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