Gophers' pass rush has been nonexistent beyond Carter Coughlin
MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers rush end Carter Coughlin is tied for the Big Ten Conference lead with five sacks, but no other U defensive lineman has a single sack through five games.
So, it's a mighty good thing for Minnesota that the four-star recruit from Eden Prairie, Minn., didn't capitalize on his scholarship offer to Ohio State, the Gophers' opponent at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 13, in Columbus.
Coughlin arrived at Minnesota as a linebacker in 2016, then switched to defensive end last season, where he had a team highs of 6½ sacks and 11½ tackles for lost yards.
When the NCAA allowed the addition of a new 10th on-field assistant coach last winter, Minnesota placed an added emphasis on the defensive line after their 23 sacks ranked 79th in the country a year ago. They replaced defensive line coach Bryce Paup with Joe Rossi and added pass-rush specialist Marcus West, the former defensive coordinator who helped turn around Austin Peay.
While Minnesota has started slowly with sacks in 2018 — their eight ties the U for 97th nationally — Coughlin has been a star pupil.
"Carter is a conscientious kid," West said. "That is what I say over and over and over about him. He is someone who understands the details. He is someone who understands how to truly change his best. It doesn't stop with however many sacks he has. He's not results driven. He works day to day and in refining the small things that make him better."
This year, no Coughlin highlight has been sweeter than his strip-sack of Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley during Saturday's 48-31 loss. It helped set up a Gophers touchdown that cut the Hawkeyes' lead to 31-24 midway through the third quarter.
West has held up Coughlin's play for the rest of the D-line to study.
"His sack-fumble against Iowa was absolute detail," West said. "It was everything from his get-off, which was perfect. The bend was there and the finish was there. The process was right on point and there was limited wasted motion in doing it."
West also singles out two successive Coughlin plays during the 26-3 victory over Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 15.
"He went around the corner and he bent on the right tackle and he failed," West said. "The guy put him right in the ground, and he knew it then. He said, 'I got him.' He comes the next play and gets a sack.
"He understands the process and pass rush is not just how. It's also mental preparation. It's understanding the process. He gets it."
Other teams are understanding it, too. With Minnesota's three other sacks all coming from linebackers, the formula to neutralize the Gophers' pass rush focuses almost exclusively on shutting down Coughlin.
"We're doing everything we can to get him single-blocked, because everybody knows that," Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck said. "When you look at our pass rush, (Coughlin) is one of the best ones. They're doing everything they can to get the protection to him, slide the protection to him. So, as we go, (we are) finding creative ways to get him singled up on a tackle or tight end."
Coughlin has been successful despite being listed at only 245 pounds, meaning he is often giving up 60-plus pounds to opposing offensive tackles. That means pre-snap reads have been critical.
"I'd say honestly being able to read when offenses are going to be pass setting, offensive tackles, judging by their weight, their hands, all that kind of stuff," Coughlin said. "That has allowed me to rush the passer on plays that's not just third down."
Fleck said Coughlin's improved core strength also has allowed him to bend better around tackles, giving them less of his body to block.
West says Coughlin's desire negates that weight disadvantage to offensive tackles, while Coughlin credits how West has helped him understand the position's nuances.
"He's a pass-rush guru," Coughlin said. "I work with him every day, all day in film and practice. He lives and breaths the pass rush, so he has changed my idea of the pass rush completely. I'm way more fluid out there than I was last year."