When a new coaching staff arrived in January of 2016, a different defensive system was installed at Minnesota. With low numbers on the defensive line and a rare athletic player already at linebacker, the Gophers decided to install a hybrid defense with a rush end. They labeled this new position, “R.” The coaches tabbed former Eden Prairie, Minn. star Carter Coughlin as the perfect player to fill this role.
Suddenly, a linebacker with bundles of athleticism was moving to a position where being a physical technician is extra important. Coughlin needed to quickly learn new technique and recognition skills from a different depth on the field.
At first, it was a challenge.
“When you get to the line of scrimmage everything changes,” head coach P.J. Fleck said this spring. “Now all the sudden you’re on that defensive line, it happens so much faster. The reaction of our system based on what he sees – the reactions weren’t there. It was almost a bit methodical at times.”
Coughlin was thrown into the fire immediately to learn the position. Despite that, he still managed to tally 37 total tackles (11.5 loss) and 6.5 sacks as the “R” last season.
However, the pass rusher wasn’t satisfied. Coughlin knew he had room to improve both physically and mentally in the offseason. The improvements the pass rusher has made are showing up on the field this season.
Coughlin has posted one sack in each of the first five games, while accumulating 15 tackles (6.5 for loss). He currently leads the Big Ten in sacks and ranks tenth among all NCAA pass rushers. The refinements to Coughlin’s skill-set have allowed him to provide a much-needed spark to the Gophers’ pass rush.
For the junior pass rusher, the biggest change in his approach has started with his football knowledge and technique.
“I’d say honestly [the biggest change is] being able to read when offenses are likely going to be pass setting – offensive tackles, judging by the weight, hands and all that kind of stuff,” Coughlin said.
After spending last season evaluating the team, head coach P.J. Fleck decided to hire young pass rushing specialist Marcus West to coach defensive line technique. West works alongside primary position coach Joe Rossi to develop pass rushing techniques and strategies for players like Coughlin.
“When I kind of looked at our — I evaluated our team last year, I felt like we needed to make some changes in pass rush,” Fleck said. “I wanted them to be able to have some type of specialist rather than just hiring a Taekwondo specialist or that type of deal in the summer, which we do like everybody else, but I wanted to have somebody constantly where we could divide the interior guys and then obviously the outside guys.”
Fleck said this type of instruction has been one of the driving forces behind Coughlin’s development in his second year at a new position. With so much natural ability at his disposal, the biggest key was becoming a technician.
“I think that having a true pass rush specialist has helped Carter take the next right step. He was always a great football player, but one thing about separating yourself just as a football player, now you’ve got to be a technician at your position,” Fleck said. “It’s one thing to be a great rush end, but how are you a great rush end? Are you making enough plays? Are you that much closer to the quarterback than you were last year? How do you close that gap? Fundamentals, technique, discipline, and I think that’s where you’ve seen that.”
This starts by studying and improving the fundamentals in practice every day. Outside of work on the field, Marcus West has the chance to spend individual time with pass rushers like Coughlin. West studies tendencies on film and relays this information to the entire defensive line group. They then develop pass rushing strategies for the upcoming game.
“[West] is like a pass rush guru. He’s like the master pass rush specialist,” Coughlin said. “I work with him all day every day in film, practice, all that kind of stuff. He lives and breaths the pass rush, so it’s changed my idea of the pass rush completely and I’m way more fluid out there than I was last year.”
When it comes to studying tendencies, Coughlin is constantly watching film with his teammates, but West helps filter some of the information to improve the pass rusher’s strategies. This starts by determining if an offensive lineman has any “tells” Coughlin can take full advantage of. Not only that, but if an offensive tackle is a vertical pass setter, the subtle straight back pedal and vertical plane of his technique is something a pass rusher like Coughlin can exploit.
“You look to see if they have any tells, whether they put both hand on both legs, two hands on one leg. Some offensive linemen have tells that they don’t even realize they have, so that can give you an idea of what plays are going to be ran with that,” Coughlin said. “Study whether they are a spot setter or a vertical setter, so that changes how I rush the passer when I’m thinking beforehand what moves I’m going to do. You check to see if he shoots his hands late or early because that too also impacts what kind of pass rush moves I’m going to hit him with.
All of this film is watched closely by West and defensive line coach Joe Rossi, who relay any of the smaller tendencies they notice to Coughlin. Of course, the pass rushers are picking out some of the larger themes, but having a coach to find intricate details, is an added bonus.
“A lot of times Coach West breaks down and he tells me so that I can watch it for myself because that would be a lot to take in,” Coughlin said. “I’d have to watch a crazy amount of film, which we do as a defensive line watch a lot of film, but it’s really nice when we have somebody like Coach West and Coach Rossi break that down for us. Those are the kind of things we look for.”
In practice, Coughlin is focusing on all of his technique, including his hands, feet and hips. One of the keys for any pass rusher is to connect their hips and hands, while making sure all of the footwork ties together. Earlier this season, Coughlin said he was studying Broncos All-Pro edge rusher Von Miller to learn some of his tricks.
“It’s really not just about hands, it’s about connecting your hands and your hips,” Coughlin said. “Like when I come around the edge I need to close my hips to the quarterback. We do that at least once a day.
In Saturday’s 48-31 loss to Iowa, Coughlin used some of this technique as he strip-sacked Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley. He deployed his speed and flipped his hips to bend the edge and create a takeaway. It’s something Coughlin learned in practice and applied to the game.
“They were having trouble with my speed rush throughout the game, so I figured I’d hit them with that and bent the corner,” Coughlin said. “[I] did it just like Coach West has been practicing with me every single day. Finally flipped my hips like we’ve been working on and that’s when you saw me pull the ball out.”
This type of technical growth was one of the main reasons why P.J. Fleck hired Marcus West this offseason. Even with these changes to his technique, the Gophers’ top pass rusher still weighs just 245 pounds. However, Fleck and the coaching staff understand there’s so much more to a player than his size.
“He’s an undersized defensive end, however people want to call it,” Fleck said. “I think he’s got an oversized heart, and that’s what it’s all about.”