Middle linebacker spot still empty for Gophers

The Gophers still are not sure who will replace Mike Rallis at middle linebacker.

MINNEAPOLIS — Of all the questions to be answered this spring for the University of Minnesota football team, one of the biggest remains who will play middle linebacker in 2013.

For now, it doesn't appear that Aaron Hill will be the Gophers' answer to that question. Hill, a redshirt senior, has the most experience among the team's linebackers. He played in 13 games and started 11 as a junior last year and tied for the third-most tackles on the team with 74. 

Yet, while Minnesota needs a middle linebacker to replace Mike Rallis, it likely won't be Hill. The Gophers like the athleticism he can bring on the outside, but the 6-foot-2, 231-pound Hill is prepared to slide to the middle linebacker spot if need be.

"I feel like as a linebacker, it's always good to know all the positions. It's also good to know what everybody else is doing around you," Hill said Thursday after the Gophers' second practice of the spring. "If they do need me in the middle, I'll be able to move there. But right now, I feel like we've got three young guys … who I feel like are going to be a good fit at the Mike, I think we'll be good there."

Among the Gophers' several options for the middle linebacker role, one early candidate is Damien Wilson. The junior transferred to Minnesota from Jones County Community College in Mississippi and is enrolled this semester, allowing him to take part in the Gophers' spring practices. 

At 6-foot-2, 254 pounds, Wilson certainly has the size to play middle linebacker. It's still early in the spring, but Wilson is making a good first impression on his new coaches and teammates.

"He's made the transition from the classroom to the weight room maybe smoother than most kids you bring in," said Jerry Kill, who is entering his third season as the Gophers head coach. "I think he's a pretty mature kid. So far, so good. He's done a pretty good job of the transition."

Helping ease Wilson's transition is the fact that his cousin, David Cobb, is a junior running back at Minnesota. Their teammates have been quick to note the similarities between the two cousins.

"They're one in the same. They've both got wild personalities," Hill said of Cobb and Wilson. "I think they're the funniest people on the team. They come from the south, got the southern accent. They like to have fun. (Wilson) has a good personality off the field and on the field, too."

The Gophers also have three freshmen linebackers from this year's recruiting class as well as several other young players that will factor into the mix this spring. Hill will be senior leader of the group, and he has big expectations for what the linebacker corps can accomplish in 2013.

"I think we're one of the hardest-working teams out there," Hill said. "That's one of our goals (as linebackers) is to be one of the hardest-working groups. I know that's something that (linebackers coach Bill) Miller prides on, and that's something that we as linebackers take personally and strive to do every day."

Wells transitions to cornerback: It's not uncommon for players to change positions during their college careers, and that's the case again this spring for the Gophers. One of those position changes is junior Derrick Wells, who is moving from safety to cornerback.

Wells had a breakout season at safety last year but dealt with a leg injury for part of the season. Still, he started 11 games, had two interceptions and finished tied for third on the team with 74 tackles. But with the losses of cornerbacks Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter to graduation, Minnesota had holes to fill at the cornerback spot.

So the Gophers have moved Wells up from the safety position. He's had just two spring practices there, but the transition seems to have gone smoothly for Wells.

"He's a good player. He can start at safety, corner, he could probably come over and play wide receiver," Kill said of Wells. "You've got to have a secondary player, too, that can be flexible in what they do, and Derrick's a guy that can do that. He can play corner, he can play safety, and having that ability's a good thing for us. Right now we're playing him at corner in the spring."

Wells has experience at cornerback from his days at Lehigh (Fla.) High School. From the time he stepped on the Minnesota campus to now, Wells has added about 40 pounds. That should allow him to be a physical cornerback in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten.

"I like to make tackles. I like to make contact," Wells said. "I think that'll be a big thing moving to corner."


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