Sophomore standouts on defense mark strength for Minnesota’s future

Published 8:56 pm Wednesday, November 22, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s final regular season game will be at home against undefeated Wisconsin, the annual opportunity to send off the departing seniors.

There’s added incentive for the Gophers of a monumental upset, too, as heavy underdogs in the latest edition of a rivalry that’s been lopsided for two-plus decades. The focus at this point in head coach P.J. Fleck’s first year on the job, though, is on the future.

For the Gophers, that starts with a group of sophomores on defense that has grown up quickly. Thomas Barber, Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin and Antoine Winfield Jr. are all Minnesota natives. They’re close friends and roommates. They represent the strength of program as it tries to progress under Fleck into 2018.

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“We tried to set a tone and keep the Minnesota kids in Minnesota, make them want to play for Minnesota,” said Barber, whose older brothers, Marion III (2001-04) and Dominique (2004-07), played for the Gophers in years when in-state recruiting was less successful.

Barber, who has manned of the inside linebacker spots, is second in the Big Ten with 108 tackles. Coughlin, who was moved to defensive end this season to maximize as much of the team’s young talent as possible, is sixth in the league with 6 1/2 sacks and tied for seventh with 11 1/2 tackles for loss.

Martin, who was a quarterback and a safety at Burnsville High School and now playing outside linebacker, is third on the team with 6½ tackles for loss to go with two sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception. Winfield, the son of former Minnesota Vikings standout Antoine Winfield, started the first four games at one of the safety positions before a hamstring injury put him in line for a medical redshirt.

“All amazing guys. All amazing people,” Martin said.

There’s also junior linebacker Blake Cashman, the team’s pass-rushing specialist who was an Eden Prairie High School teammate of Coughlin and Winfield, whose family later moved to Texas. Cashman has five tackles for loss and two sacks.

“We want to keep all the Minnesota guys home. I think that’s really important, and it’s a special thing too because you get a lot of support from the community and the fans as well,” Cashman said.

Barber’s progress has been the most rapid.

“He’s so much more confident. That confidence has allowed him to shoot the gaps the way he’s supposed to,” Coughlin said. “Before, I think he was just playing hesitant because, just like anything, with experience you’re able to play a lot faster. Just like I’ve been able to play faster.”

Having such a football-rich family has certainly helped Barber, whose father, Marion Jr., was a running back for the Gophers from 1977-80. Barber, who played at Armstrong High School in Plymouth, hasn’t simply been given a spot just because of his last name, though.

“I could’ve taken the easy road and just expected things to be handed to me, but I worked hard for everything I got and that’s what I’ve deserved so far,” he said.

Work ethic is a common trait in this group of standout sophomores.

“The one thing about those guys, they hold each other accountable, including me,” Martin said.