Gophers deep, experienced at linebacker
This is the seventh in a series of 11 previews leading up to the University of Minnesota football team's start of practice.
July 22: Quarterbacks
July 23: Running backs
July 24: Wide receivers
July 25: Tight ends
July 26: Offensive linemen
July 27: Defensive linemen
July 28: Linebackers
July 29: Cornerbacks
July 30: Safeties
July 31: Specialists
Aug. 1: Coaches
TODAY'S POSITION: LINEBACKERS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starters: Mike Rallis (redshirt senior), Keanon Cooper (redshirt senior), Spencer Reeves (senior)
Key backups: Aaron Hill (redshirt junior), Ryan Grant (redshirt senior), Brendan Beal (redshirt junior), Lamonte Edwards (redshirt sophomore), James Manuel (junior)
The breakdown: Though the entire Gophers team will be playing with heavy hearts this year when it takes the field for the first time after the death of former linebacker Gary Tinsley in May, it will be especially tough to move on for the other linebackers. Thankfully for Minnesota, this is perhaps the most experienced unit on the defense, with plenty of senior leadership both on and off the field.
The linebacking trio of Rallis, Cooper and Reeves are all seniors, with Rallis and Cooper entering their redshirt senior seasons. That means all three have been around for quite some time and have gained valuable experience along the way.
"As far as returning people, (linebacker is) going to be the deepest one," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "...We do have the most playing experience at the linebacker spot."
Rallis made the transition this spring from outside to middle linebacker and has put on a bit of weight to help carry the load of his new position. Last season, Rallis was third on the team in tackles with 83, behind only senior safety Kim Royston (123) and Tinsley (87). Rallis also registered five tackles-for-loss, 1-1/2 sacks and one recovered fumble as he started all 12 games at outside linebacker. His younger brother, Nick, will be a freshman linebacker for the Gophers this season.
Like Rallis, Cooper played all 12 games, starting nine, at the other outside linebacker position. He forced two fumbles and recovered one while also recording 77 tackles, fourth-most on the defense. Reeves didn't get quite as much playing time as Rallis or Cooper (10 games, no starts), but he brings experience to the linebackers as another senior. Last year, Reeves had eight tackles.
Minnesota also has plenty of depth at linebacker. Hill missed time last season with an injury but played in nine games, including two starts. Grant didn't rack up many stats at linebacker (just four tackles) in 2011, but he did appear in 11 games and has now played in 35 games over three seasons. Beal has yet to play for the Gophers, as he transferred to Minnesota after his freshman season at Florida. He sat out the 2010 season due to NCAA transfer rules and missed all of 2011 with a knee injury. It remains to be seen if he can stay healthy and, if so, what kind of contribution he can make.
Best position battle: It's not so much a position battle, but the thing to watch for Minnesota's linebackers will be how Edwards and Manuel adapt to their new positions. Edwards came to the Gophers from Woodbury (Minn.) High School as a running back and played three games at running back as a redshirt freshman last year. But needing depth at linebacker, the Gophers' coaching staff moved the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Edwards to linebacker during the season. Now, he'll have a full spring and fall camp to learn the nuances of linebacker as he looks to contribute in 2012.
"It's a little unfair to Lamonte to end up there during the middle of the season. He'd been on offense the whole time all last spring and the first part of the season, and then we moved him," Claeys said. "He made great progress. I think he has a very good future there. He's going to help us a lot. His power and strength is really amazing. I'm really excited to get him in fall camp and all the reps in fall camp. That's where I think he'll show his most improvement now."
Manuel was also moved to linebacker, although not in the middle of the season like Edwards. Manuel played in 12 games last season as a safety, making 11 tackles. The Indianapolis native also appeared in all 12 games during his freshman season, making 29 tackles and forcing a pair of turnovers. He and Edwards will continue to learn their new position this fall.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Michigan State. 2. Penn State. 3. Wisconsin. The Spartans return all three starting linebackers from last year's stingy defense. Max Bullough is MSU's middle linebacker and was a second-team All-Big Ten coaches selection last year as a sophomore. Denicos Allen is another junior who started last year. Both Bullough and Allen are on the preseason watch list for the 2012 Butkus Award, given to college football's top linebacker. Joining them from last year's starting squad is Chris Norman, a senior who was fourth on the Spartans with 76 tackles last year. After Michigan State, the Nittany Lions appear to have the next-deepest cast of linebackers, including Gerald Hodges and Michael Mauti, who are also on the 2012 Butkus Award watch list. The Badgers boast a talented duo of Chris Borland and Mike Taylor, who have both battled injuries but enter fall camp healthy. Though linebacker is Minnesota's deepest position, the Gophers play in a conference filled with plenty of talent at linebacker this year.
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