Gophers positional preview: Linebackers

Minnesota linebacker Damien Wilson started 12 of the 13 games he played in last year and finished second on the team in tackles with 78, adding 5 1/2 tackles for loss.

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This is the ninth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team’s Aug. 1 start of practice.

Today’s position: Linebacker

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 5

Projected starters: De’Vondre Campbell (redshirt junior), Damien Wilson (senior), Jack Lynn (redshirt sophomore)

Key backups: Jephete Matilus (redshirt junior), Nick Rallis (redshirt sophomore), Ray Dixon (redshirt freshman)

The breakdown: While Minnesota’s defense as a whole took a step forward in 2013, the linebacking corps was not as strong as the rest of the defense. With the Gophers once again thin and inexperienced at the position in 2014, it appears that the linebacker unit could be the weak link again.

Campbell, who transferred prior to 2013 from Hutchinson Community College, played in all 13 games at linebacker last year and made three starts (against San Jose State, Iowa, and Indiana). Though the 6-foot-5, 238-pound Campbell seemed, at times, a bit undersized for his frame, he showed some athleticism and the ability to chase down ball carriers. He finished the season with three tackles for loss and also a forced fumble.

Gophers positional previews

Lynn is the least experienced of the three projected starters, though coaches have spoken highly of him since his redshirt season in 2012. He played in just three games as a redshirt freshman and had only five tackles. But with the Gophers thin at the position, the Lake Zurich, Ill., native should have a chance to earn the starting job.

Wilson returns the most experience of any linebacker in this group, as he started 12 of the 13 games he played in last year. Like Campbell, Wilson was a junior-college transfer before the 2013 season. Wilson’s first year with the Gophers was impressive. He finished second on the team in tackles with 78 and added 5 1/2 tackles for loss.

Minnesota also had high hopes for Iowa Western transfer Cody Poock, who would have had a good chance to start as a sophomore this year. But Poock tore his ACL during spring ball and won’t be ready to play when the season starts in late August. The Gophers are hoping Poock will be able to recover in time to play a portion of the 2014 season, but that remains to be seen.

Best position battle: Wilson appears a lock at the middle linebacker position, where he was a mainstay last year. Given his experience, Campbell has the upper hand for one of the two outside linebacker jobs. But the third outside linebacker is by no means set in stone. Lynn will likely enter fall camp this weekend as the top option for that final linebacker spot, but he could be challenged in camp by Rallis. The younger brother of former Gophers linebacker Mike Rallis, Nick appeared in 10 games for Minnesota last year as a redshirt freshman, registering seven tackles. Given the lack of playing time the rest of the backup linebackers have, Rallis would likely have the best chance of any to unseat Lynn as the third starting linebacker.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Nebraska, 2. Michigan, 3. Michigan State

In 10 starts as a sophomore last year, Nebraska linebacker David Santos racked up 87 tackles and seven tackles for loss. He’ll be the leader of this unit in 2014, and he’ll be joined by several others with experience. That includes Michael Rose, who started seven games as a redshirt freshman.

Like Nebraska, Michigan’s linebacker unit returns plenty of experience for 2014. Jake Ryan, Desmond Morgan and James Ross all are back and will make this one of the deeper linebacking corps in the Big Ten.

While the Spartans lose two standout linebackers in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, they still have plenty of talent at the position. That includes junior Ed Davis, who played in 14 games last year, and senior leader Taiwan Jones, who made 13 starts in 2013 and had 67 tackles and seven tackles for loss.

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