Gophers’ LBs ready for opportunity ahead

MINNEAPOLIS — Four months after his death, former Gophers linebacker Gary Tinsley is still very much on the minds of his University of Minnesota teammates.

As the Gophers took to the field this past weekend to begin fall camp, they wore “GT51” stickers on the backs of their practice helmets. When the season starts Aug. 30 against UNLV, they’ll wear a similar memorial patch on their uniforms.

Tinsley’s memory still looms large early on in fall camp as players continue to share stories of the late linebacker, who was found dead in his campus apartment in early April due to a heart condition. Among those keeping Tinsley’s memory alive is senior linebacker Keanon Cooper, Tinsley’s roommate at the time of his death.

It was Cooper who found an unresponsive Tinsley in their apartment and called the police. By then, however, it was too late, as Cooper’s good friend and teammate was dead at just 22 years old.

Since then, Cooper has put football into perspective as he enters his final season as a Gopher — and his first without Tinsley by his side.

“It’s my last go-around. You never know if this is my last season playing football or not. I’m just basically giving it my all,” Cooper said. “This whole team has dedicated the season to GT. That’s our mindset. We don’t know what the future holds. All we’re worrying about is the now, just working as hard as we can right now and everything will work itself out.”

Cooper is one of three seniors likely to begin the season as Minnesota’s starting linebackers. He’ll be joined by middle linebacker Mike Rallis and outside linebacker Spencer Reeves.

Cooper and Rallis were mainstays in Coach Jerry Kill’s defense a year ago, as each played in all 12 games. Reeves, meanwhile, knows that this is his last chance to make an impact. He played in 10 games as a junior in 2011 but made just eight tackles.

“I probably could have given a lot more, but that’s in the past. I’m looking forward right now,” Reeves said. “A lot has changed about my mindset and what’s going forward. It’s just about moving forward now. Whatever they need me to do, I’ll do. … I’m just trying to get better each and every day.”

Reeves and Cooper are playing their final season together after also taking the same field as high school teammates at Skyline High School in Dallas (which is where senior defensive back Troy Stoudermire also attended).

“Me and Keanon are real close. We do a lot of things together,” Reeves said. “Having him on my side is also a plus for our defense. Knowing where he’s going to be at, we can trust each other. We know a lot about each other’s backgrounds, so that relationship helps out a lot on the field.”

After the trio of senior starters, Minnesota has some depth at linebacker. The only other senior at the position is Ryan Grant, who gained plenty of experience over the past three years as he played in 35 games (including four starts). Redshirt junior Aaron Hill has seen plenty of playing time during his first two seasons at Minnesota, appearing in 21 games and registering 46 total tackles.

Even some of the younger players such as redshirt sophomore Lamonte Edwards and junior James Manuel — who both transitioned from different positions to linebacker — give the Gophers some much-needed depth.

“All of us are guys that can run,” Cooper said. “Over the summer, they really worked on their athleticism, just being able to run and stuff. We definitely have a lot of depth. Going from last year, we have a lot more experience too.”

While Minnesota’s linebackers have gained experience on the field, they’ve also experienced adversity off the field with the passing of Tinsley. The loss was tough for the entire Gophers family, but it especially hit home for Cooper and the linebackers.

So as they take the field for each and every game during the 2012 season, the Gophers linebacker unit will always be reminded of Tinsley’s legacy. They’ll each honor him in their own unique way.

“There’s a few different ways you can look at it,” Rallis said. “There’s definitely times when we’re doing our toughest conditioning during the summer and you’re looking to dig down and you say, ‘I’m going to do this for Gary.’ When you get that in your mind, there’s nothing you can’t do. You just push through.

“Then you also think about — I was just thinking today about how Gary every single practice brought full energy, full go, enthusiasm, all of it. It inspires you to do the same. If we get that out of enough guys this fall, we’re going to have a great camp.”

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