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Minnesota Gopher Football 2011 Preview: Linebackers- Upgrade/Downgrade

We continue our season positional preview with the linebackers, the group that was easily the strength of the defense, and perhaps the entire team, in 2010. And yet, because of the gong show-awful performance of the entire defense, we have to use the term "strength" kind of loosely. Fairly or unfairly, the defensive line usually gets critiqued for the pass rush while the secondary gets their grades on how they did against the pass. The linebackers? They have to do a little of everything, and they're judged by how the D performed overall- and as you know, this defense did NOT perform well last year:

  • 9th in the Big Ten in scoring defense- 33 pts/game
  • 8th in total defense at 392.2 yds/game but last in the B1G with 6.6 yards allowed per play
  • last in rushing defense at 191.4 yds/game and 5.3 yds/carry
  • 10th in pass defense efficiency
  • and of course, DEAD LAST in sacks with just 9 for -59 yards.

Sure, the Gophers were 4th in pass defense but that's only because the opposition usually ran so well and so easily- and also usually had a lead- they never had to throw much. Which is probably a good thing, as the Gophers allowed the highest avergage per attempt at 8.6 yards, and one of the highest completion percentages to opposing QB's (65%) of any team in the Big Ten. Still, I'm not for one second going to blame all of that on the linebackers. The defensive line got zero push either for pressure on the quarterback or for distrupting the running game, and the defensive backs couldn't cover anybody. At all. Ever. So a talented group of linebackers basically had to do everything themselves, but try as they might, as you can see from the numbers above, they couldn't get it done.

But that should change in 2011, and I'd be shocked if this group doesn't finally have the stats to back up their actual talent level. First and foremost, we get one of the best defensive coordinators in college football in Tracy Claeys. The man has had a top-notch defense everywhere he's coached, and that should not be any different here. They're not going to be world beaters overnight, but with actual real coaching and instruction, the defense should definitely see an improvement. That improvement should really show up in the pass rush, as former DC Kevin Cosgrove did not use the blitz much, preferring to keep his 'backers back in pass coverage. Claeys has a successful history of being much more aggressive, so the linebackers (and corners and safeties) should see improved sack numbers if from nothing else than gaining more opportunities to get after the quarterback.

The defense also adds some talent with not just incoming recruits but with a couple of transfers, and an important player in the secondary in Kim Royston who returns from injury. The defensive line should be able to get more push up front, and the secondary can't cover any worse, so with more help from the front six or seven, the secondary should be improved too.

Combine all of that, and it should allow a deep and talented group of linebackers to shine in 2011. Every starter and contributor from last season's group is back, and they're adding a very talented transfer, as well as some promising freshmen. Let's look at the two deep at linebacker...

The returning starters on the outside are juniors Keanon Cooper and Mike Rallis. Cooper is undersized at just 212 pounds, but wreaked havoc in drills and scrimmages during the spring, and that should continue in Claeys new aggressive scheme. Cooper had operated more like a strong safety playing up at the line of scrimmage under the old system Cosgrove ran, as he was put almost exclusively in pass coverage instead of rushing the quarterback. Cooper recorded just a half sack and only 4.5 tackles for loss last year and has just 1.5 sacks in his entire career. That should change with Claeys, who likes to bring pressure from everywhere, and getting someone with Cooper's wheels into the opposing backfield should be fun to watch. Despite his size, he's been solid in run support, finishing third on the team with 68 total tackles in 2010.

Rallis is a great story, and has turned into a very good player. He was lightly recruited out of Edina, yet played in all 13 games as a defensive back and on special teams as a true freshman. His first start was in the Insight Bowl, and looked on his way to big things before a leg injury wiped out almost all of his 2009 season (he was granted a medical redshirt so he did not lose a year of eligibility). He came back in 2010 bigger and stronger at 230 pounds, moving up to outside linebacker where he saw action in nine games, starting six of them. He was very productive in that span, finishing third on the team in sacks with six, totaled 37 tackles, and also picked off three passes. If Rallis can stay healthy, he's in line for a big year. Coach Claeys has been known to substitute pretty freely, so while Rallis may see a few less plays per game, he should be fresher when he's out there, and should lead to continued production and improvement.

To start fall camp, Dwayne Mitchell and Aaron Hill have been running with the "two's" at OLB. Mitchell is just a redshirt frosh, but at 6'2 is rangy and athletic, and has obviously grabbed the coaches' attention to be running with the second unit already. Hill walked on two years ago, and after redshirting in 2009 saw action in all 12 games last season, including his first two starts. Listed at 6'2 and 225, he has good size for the position and should see time behind Rallis. And if his profile pic is any indication, Hill definitely has the best fro on the team. That thing is sweet.

Other guys to watch on the outside include junior Spencer Reeves, a highly decorated player from Skyline high school in Dallas who was part of the top 25 recruiting class Tim Brewster brought in in 2008. A three star recruit by both Rivals and Scout and the Dallas Morning News high school Defensive Player of the Year in 2007, Reeves played in nine games as a freshman in 2009 and in all 11 in 2010, including two starts. He SHOULD be the total package at linebacker, but he has not been able to outperform classmates Cooper and Rallis as of yet, and still clearly needs to prove a few things to the coaches. If he puts it together though, watch out. Former Eden Prairie star Ryan Grant started four games last season, and at 230 pounds could see time both outside and in the middle.

At middle linebacker, I obviously jumped the gun about Brendan Beal starting this fall. Per GN's practice notes, Beal was running with the second team not the first, but he remains a very talented sophomore who should see the field plenty this season. The guy he hasn't been able to beat out for the starting job is senior Gary Tinsley, who was only Minnesota's best defender, and perhaps best player, in 2010. Tinsley was honorable mention all-conference, leading the team with 90 tackles (47 solo) and 9.5 tackles for loss. He's not the biggest MLB at 230 pounds, but his speed and strength more than make up for it, as he's been ridiculously productive. Not surprisingly, thanks to his new coach and more aggressive scheme, he should be even better in 2011.

Grant could see a few snaps here as well, and there's a bunch of young kids who'll be competing for playing time behind Tinsley and Beal. Those include sophomore Joey Balthazor, and RS frosh Gabe Mezzenga, both of whom go 230+ pounds and were very productive high school players (Balthazor at Sconnie power Arrowhead and Mezzenga at Totino-Grace). Both look to have the size to play inside, but we'll see if they fit the profile of what Claeys is looking for. One to keep an eye on is true freshmen Quinn Bauducco, who was a top 40 ILB prospect from California. He has the ability to get on the field right away, but we'll see if he impresses the coaches enough in camp to do so.

The next three weeks of practice should tell us a lot about who the coaches want to see playing behind Tinsley and Claeys, and some surprise names could definitely emerge. Overall, with talent, experience, and now some great coaching, the best position group on the team in 2010 should be even better in 2011.

What say you?