Gophers linebackers are raw, but also talented
MINNEAPOLIS -- At least early on this season, there are more than three linebacker spots up for grabs in Minnesota's 4-3 alignment.
Try double that.
With optimism toward the depth of a unit that appeared rather thin entering fall practices, the Gophers coaching staff plans to use two separate, distinct linebacker platoons for next Thursday's season opener against UNLV on a fairly even rep basis.
If they work, they'll remain. If they don't, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will have some more shuffling to do.
"I think those three kids in each group, they need to play together almost like an offensive line, and they need to play together for a week, and then we'll roll the dice," Claeys said Tuesday, the last day of Minnesota's two-a-days. "If we're wrong the first game, we'll change it and play the one who does best. Here the next couple days, we'll continue to mess with it a little bit."
There will be a No. 1 group, but Claeys and assistant Bill Miller plan to frequently rotate in a second set of linebackers. A good chunk of the Gophers' opponents, starting with the Runnin' Rebels under first-year offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach, will operate up-tempo schemes that require defenses to stay fresh.
And with one returning starter lining up between the big men up front and the secondary, generating playing experience is almost as integral as giving guys a chance to catch their breath.
"I think we all fight for depth," said head coach Jerry Kill, who lost Mike Rallis, Keanon Cooper and Spencer Reeves from last season's team. "You look at the great teams -- look at Alabama, who's won a national championship. They're good at ones, they're good at twos. They'll run five tailbacks out there. They're deep, and I think the deeper you are, the more competition you have, the better you practice, and that's what it's all about."
Coming off a 6-7 season where they ranked 45th nationally in scoring defense, the Gophers won't be competing with the Alabamas of the world any time soon.
But they do see enough athleticism at linebacker to think two trios can be better than one.
Leading returning tackler Aaron Hill (strong side), junior-college transfer Damien Wilson (middle) and senior James Manuel (weak side) have worked mostly with the first-team defense, with De'Vondre Campbell, Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis backing them up at each position. Coaches continue to mix and match among those six but hope to work true freshman De'Niro Laster -- who returned from injury Tuesday -- into the fold, too.
Hill's job with the ones is safest after the fifth-year senior tallied 74 total tackles, four tackles for loss and two interceptions last season. It's been on the former walk-on to grow as a leader, not just for his particular unit but the entire defense, Kill said.
"He did a good job last year, and this year, being a senior, he's even done a better job," Claeys said. "Obviously, he is smart enough to get people lined up. He's paid his dues; hell, he came here as a walk-on, you know? I think kids always respect that, somebody who came here and paid for their own school and they build up to where they can get a scholarship."
In the wake of several injuries, Hill played all three linebacker positions and filled several special teams duties last season. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound St. Louis native's bulky frame and sound gap responsibility are best suited for Minnesota's "sam" position, where he has spent most of fall camp.
Next to him, Wilson appears to have gained a slight edge over Lynn for the starting middle linebacker job. Standing 6-foot-2 and 254 pounds, the Jones County Community College (Miss.) transfer fits the physical mold to replace Rallis, the Gophers' second-leading tackler a year ago.
But Claeys said he's equally comfortable with Lynn, a redshirt freshman.
At the "will" spot, Manuel stands to earn a starting gig after appearing in all 37 games his first three collegiate seasons but never sticking as a mainstay.
The position requires the ability to cover a lot of space and finish on open-field tackles; Minnesota's weakside linebackers don't line up according to opposing offenses' formations nearly as often as they key upon which hash mark the ball is placed upon. Most of the time, the "will" backer is responsible for the wide side of the field.
At present, Manuel's the best option in space, Claeys said. But at 6-foot-5, 225 pounds with a 4.49 40-yard dash, Campbell is vying for time at the spot, too -- even while working with the No. 2 unit behind Hill.
"When you get to the field-side backer, he's your kid that has a chance to be All-American," Claeys said. "We blitz him the most, he drops off in coverage, and like D'Vondre, has length. I think there's a lot of positives to D'Vondre if he would be the field-side backer."
The coaches will continue to experiment with different personnel groupings at practice the next two days then establish a firm depth chart and let the linebackers know Saturday where they shake out."We play a lot of guys on defense," Kill said, "so we feel good about that area, which we were maybe concerned about a little bit going into camp."
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