Gophers searching for depth at linebacker position
This is the seventh in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team's Aug. 1 start of practice.
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 5
Projected starters: Aaron Hill (senior), Damien Wilson (junior), James Manuel (senior)
Key backups: Jephte Matilus (redshirt sophomore), Jack Lynn (redshirt freshman)
The breakdown: There's no question the Gophers are searching for depth at linebacker. Minnesota loses a few key senior linebackers from last year's team in Mike Rallis, Keanon Cooper and Spencer Reeves. Rallis and Cooper played in all 13 games, while Reeves appeared in 10.
So who will fill the void at linebacker? Aaron Hill is one of the few Gophers with substantial experience at the position. He played in 13 games as a junior and made 11 starts while recording 74 tackles. Hill had three games of two or more tackles last year, including twice in the final three regular-season games. He also forced a pair of fumbles in the Gophers' game at Illinois, in which he had 10 tackles (seven solo).
Wilson is a name brought up often by the coaching staff in spring practices. While he's entering his first season with the Gophers, he does have college experience. Wilson transferred to Minnesota after playing at Jones County Community College. Wilson possesses good size for a linebacker at 6-foot-2, 254 pounds. His cousin is Gophers running back David Cobb.
This is a big opportunity for Manuel, who has played in all 37 games during his first three seasons. But he only started four times, including three games as a true freshman in 2010. Last year he finished with 50 tackles and made one start.
Aside from the starting three, Minnesota doesn't have a ton of experience at linebacker and will continue to search for depth throughout the season. Some young players may be forced to learn on the fly, including Lynn, redshirt freshmen Nick Rallis (younger brother of Mike) and Cedric Dicke.
Minnesota thought it had another solid linebacker option in Lamonte Edwards, who transitioned from running back to linebacker during his freshman season. But Edwards, who played in 11 games last year, was kicked off the team late last month for violating team rules.
Best position battle: For as many questions as the Gophers have at linebacker, the biggest one may be who will line up in the middle. That was a job held by Mike Rallis, but now Minnesota has to find his replacement at middle linebacker.
Hill seems like an option there given his experience, although the Gophers seem to like him as an outside linebacker. It will likely come down to Hill and Wilson for that spot. Wilson is a bit bigger than Hill, which could translate into a better fit in the middle.
The middle linebacker competition is surely one that will play out during fall camp -- and it still may not be settled for good after that. It will also be worth watching which young linebackers will get a shot at playing time early on this year. Of the 13 linebackers on the roster, 10 of them are underclassmen. That's a lot of inexperience and a lot of trial by fire.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Ryan Shazier (Ohio State) 2. Chris Borland (Wisconsin) 3. Max Bullough (Michigan State)
There are plenty of talented linebackers in the Big Ten, but three stand above the rest. Shazier, a junior linebacker from Ohio State, may be one of the Big Ten's top defensive players in 2013, not just its top linebacker. As a sophomore, he was second in the conference with 115 tackles. He also ranked eighth with five sacks and led the Big Ten with 17 tackles for loss.
Borland is a redshirt senior who is seemingly all over the field for Wisconsin. He had 104 tackles as a junior and added 4.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Borland also has a nose for forcing turnovers -- he forced three fumbles and also recovered three a year ago.
The Spartans may have one of the Big Ten's best defenses in 2013, and it will no doubt be led by Bullough. The 6-3, 245-pound senior earned first-team All-Big Ten honors after making 111 tackles, 2.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss as a junior.
Linebacker Aaron Hill says: "I think we're one of the hardest-working teams out there. 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 that's something we strive to do every day."
Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter