Before the 2012 season we thought the linebacking corps would be a strength of the Gopher defense. It didn't take long (somewhere around Marc Weisman's second or third run to daylight- in the first f***ing quarter!?!) to realize that despite all the experience and apparent physical tools, the linebacking position in 2012 would be far from a strength. As a team the Gophers were solid against the pass (4th in the B1G), and just plain stunk against the run, ranking 8th in yards per game allowed (172) yards per carry (4.7...yeah that's not good) and rushing TD's (22). While some of their run defense woes can be attributed to the D-line not getting enough penetration into the backfield or keeping o-lineman off the backers long enough for them to pursue the play, their lack of instincts, gap control, and poor tackling can't be blamed on anyone else. The size (or lack thereof) of Minnesota's regular contributors didn't help matters either, as a small group wasn't able to use their apparent speed and quickness to their advantage. Like, at all.
That isn't to say we shouldn't show some appreciation for the seven linebackers from 2012 who won't be back this fall. The four seniors went through a lot, including three head coaches, as well as multiple DC's: Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper were the two most important departed seniors as Rallis was an unheralded local recruit who made 33 career starts while Cooper was a highly regarded prospect from a Dallas high school powerhouse who started 34 games. Spencer Reeves played in 10 games last season as a reserve while Ryan Grant played in every game but one during his four years and made four starts as a sophomore when injuries took their toll. Junior Brendan Beal will probably go onto a great career in the business world after he graduates from the Carlson School of Management, but it was unfortunate the former high school All-American was just never fully healthy for the Maroon and Gold. Since transferring from Florida in 2010, Beal appeared in only 11 games in his Gopher career (all in 2012) due to continuous knee injuries. After yet another knee injury against Nebraska ended his 2012 season, Beal decided to walk away at the end of the year. Fellow RS junior Joey Balthazar appeared in 31 games in his Gopher career, but decided not to return for his senior season. Sophomore Lamonte Edwards was a converted running back who appeared in 11 games on defense last season and was expected to compete for one of the starting outside linebacker spots this spring. That was until he allegedly took an iPhone that didn't belong to him, and was kindly asked to leave the team. And the university.
So the question is: is losing these seven a good thing? Sure, you could say seven players not returning from a position group that was one of the team's worst would usually be a good thing, because the guys replacing them have to be better, right? Right? Anyone? That's what we're trying to figure out here today. The returning linebackers are big and athletic, but what they lack is experience. Senior Aaron Hill may have more pressure to perform than any other returning starter, since he's the only proven starter in the group. He started 11 of 13 games in 2012 and tied for third in total tackles with 74, was fourth in solo tackles with 40, and registered four tackles for loss, a sack, two picks, and led the team with three forced fumbles. At 231 pounds he played exclusively outside before this season, and while the coaches considered moving him inside in the spring, it looks like he'll be one of the starting outside linebackers to open the season. That much we know. The other side? Middle? Good questions both.
Let's start in the middle since that one's pretty cut and dry with two players competing for one spot. Junior JUCO transfer Damien Wilson has the size (6'2 and 254) and experience you want in a B1G middle linebacker. He was highly productive last season at Jones County Community College and was named the region's Defensive Player of the Year and the JUCO national Defensive POY by National Underclassmen.com. He also enrolled early so he could partipate in spring practice to try and get a leg up on the job. Yet according to the coaches, he's still neck-and-neck with redshirt freshman Jack Lynn, who at 230 pounds is a little undersized to play the middle, but has gained weight and strength since he coming to school as a true freshman a year ago. He was a solid recruit out of Illinois, and certainly looks to have a bright future. If I had to guess I'd say Wilson wins the job, but expect Lynn to play plenty, and the starter may not be decided until opening night.
The other outside spot is where the coaches REALLY need someone to step up. Senior James Manuel is penciled in as the starter, but every other OLB in camp will be given every opportunity to take that job and run with it between now and the opener against Vegas. Manuel, a converted safety, played in all 13 last year but started just once, and while he's fast and athletic, he's yet to show the instincts or poise to play the position well. Maybe that changes and he has a Michael Carter-like breakout as a senior, but chances are if there's going to be improved play here, it's going to need to come from somebody else. First guy up is expected to be another JUCO transfer, sophomore De'Vondre Campbell. A highly regarded recruit, the Gophers nabbed him at the last minute on signing day away from the Big 12, and with three years or eligibility remaining, he's supposed to be a big-time athlete with size, the likes of which don't play linebacker here very often.
Competing with Campbell will be RS soph Jephte Matilus a 6'2 240 pounder who racked up tackles playing his high school ball in South Florida yet flew under the radar as a prospect. That may be to The U's gain, as the Academic All-B1G selection who saw action in four games last season is a big dude with good athleticsm who should be ready to play a lot. While the group lost one Rallis, they still have Mike's younger brother Nick who is only 5'11 but has bulked up to 230 pounds after redshirting last season. If his work ethic is anything like his brother's, he'll be earning playing time here soon. Finally, there's a true freshman to watch here too in De'Niro Laster. The three star recruit from Ohio played both linebacker and wide receiver at 6'4 and 230 pounds, which should give you an idea of his athleticism. Kill and DC Tracey Claeys would eventually like to get to the point where you don't have to play true freshmen right away, but with as little depth as they have here, if Laster proves in fall camp he's ready, he should get a chance.
Despite losing sack leader DL Wilhite, the defensive line should be better this season in front of them. The defensive backs lost two really good corners, but there's enough depth and experience returning that the DB's should be solid again behind them. But if Minnesota's D wants to take that next step, and especially if they want to get better against the run, this very young and very inexperienced group of linebackers needs to better than last year's veterans were. Can it happen? Will it happen? Decide for yourself in the poll and comments.