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Minnesota Gopher Football 2012 Positional Preview: Linebackers- Upgrade/Downgrade

We made it everyone! We did it! This will be our last positional Minnesota Gopher positional preview of 2012. I know, I know holy **** I never thought they'd end either. Seriously, thank God for all us. We agree to do these things every summer and we forget what a daunting gauntlet of words, polls, and for some people (not me) research and pictures. With just days before the season begins, we were cutting it close, but as we always seem to (most years at least) we got it done again. Just for you the reader. You're welcome, TDG readers. You're so freaking welcome.

So linebackers-- sorry what? Special teams? You're saying we forgot to do a special teams preview? So wrong. I, um...I remembered. Totally. Didn't forget at all, or totally weren't just hoping you wouldn't notice. Fine, here's your special teams preview:

  • We still don't know who our kicker is.
  • We still don't know who our punter is either, but at least the one who's been shank-tastic the past two seasons isn't being handed the job. So that's good.
  • Troy Stoudermire should break the NCAA record for career kick return yardage, and we also have a couple of really fast guys in Marcus Jones and KJ Maye.
  • I think our long-snapper is pretty good, and that's important.

Boom! Special teams preview. Done and done. Upgrade/downgrade? You decide, but obviously it's an upgrade because it just is. Trust us.

Ok then, linebackers. Let's finish strong here people...

Obviously, there's sadness and heavy hearts hanging over this group, and the team as a whole, as two year starter Gary Tinsley died tragically during the offseason from a heart condition. He was set to graduate in the spring, and his shocking death shook this program to its core, but it also looks like it brought the team together. The entire team went to his funeral down in Florida, and are going to dedicate the season to his memory. Tinsley as a person and leader will be greatly missed, as will his incredible production at middle linebacker; in 2011 he was second in tackles with 87, and led the Gophers with nine TFL and four sacks. His 2010 season was almost a mirror image, totaling 90 tackles, 9.5 TFL and one sack.

You couldn't find anyone better suited to step into Tinsley's rather large shadow than experienced senior Mike Rallis, who shifts to the middle from outside linebacker where he started every game in 2011 and six in 2010. He's not the fastest guy around, but has good instincts and has been very productive, finishing third on the team last year with 83 tackles, and also had five TFL, one sack, and recovered one fumble. Rallis is a great story as a walk-on from Edina in 2008 where he was an offensive star. He was switched to DB at the U, and not only earned himself a scholarship as a true freshman, but impressed the coaches so much that he got his first career start in the Insight Bowl to end the season. He was shifted to outside LB in 2009 and promptly broke his leg, missing almost the entire season. Would that slow him down the next year? Of course not, as thanks to a medical hardship waiver for the injury, he got a do-over on his sophomore year in 2010, made six starts, and has been a fixture in the starting lineup ever since.

Keanon Cooper is another experienced senior who has started opposite Rallis as an OLB for most of the past two seasons. Unlike Rallis however, Cooper was a very highly sought-after recruit out of Dallas, TX power Skyline high school, and was seen as a huge coup for the Gophers. While Cooper has played a lot, he hasn't been incredibly consistent, as despite appearing in every game each of the past two seasons, he still is yet to be a starter for a full season. He's not the biggest guy in the world at just 220 pounds, but was called the fastest player on the roster last season, and has every physical gift you could want. He's certainly been solid for his career, but here's hoping 2012 is when he lives up to the recruiting hype and becomes great.

The week one starter opposite Cooper will be former Skyline teammate and another senior, Spencer Reeves. The 6'2 234 pounder is getting his first real chance at playing time, as because of the production of Rallis, Cooper and others, he just hasn't been able to get on the field. He didn't redshirt his fresman year in 2009 because Tim Brewster thought it was important he appear in nine games and make one tackle (another great decision by Play4Brew)- not per game, he made one the entire year. So that was great use of his freshman season. As a sophomore he appeared in 11 games and made two starts, but was unable to build any momentum with the new coaching staff last year, appearing in 10 games but without a start. With the opportunity in front of him to finally play, he's been the starter since day one of fall camp, and could be a pretty nice player.

If either starter at outside linebacker go down, or aren't playing well, converted safety James Manuel looks like the first guy who'll get a chance. Because of woeful depth, and let's be honest also woeful talent, Manuel was forced to play right away as a true freshman out of Indianapolis in 2010. And by "play right away" I mean he was the week one starter. Minnesota won the opener against Middle Tennesee State, but I think you know how the rest of the year went. Manuel, like a lot of that guys on that 2010 defense, looked overmatched and was replaced as a starter after three games. He appeared in all 12 games last season, but couldn't crack the starting lineup, and this past off-season was moved to outside linebacker. That seemed a curious move at the time since depth again looked thin at safety, and Manuel is a little undersized at only 210 pounds. Still, this is why the coaches coach and we pretend we know what we're talking about, as Manuel had a great spring and has continued to impress in fall camp, pushing Cooper for his starting job the entire way.

The backup at the other outside spot is another player who changed positions recently in former Woodbury star running back Lamonte Edwards. Redshirted in 2010, he lasted jsut three games at running back with the new coaching staff before they decided to move him over to linebacker. Again, at the time it seemed a curious decision as the team was having trouble finding any running back not named Duane Bennett to give them consistent carries, yet Edwards went over, and jumped right in, recording 17 tackles by the time the year was out. Again, this is why the coaches coach as Edwards pushed the two deep rotation last year and right through spring and fall camp, and as only a sophomore should have a bright future.

If backup MLB Brendan Beal didn't have bad luck, he wouldn't have any at all. Or so the saying goes. The Florida-transfer hasn't played a down since enrolling at Florida in 2008 as a highly-decorated recruit from Pennsylvania. He was named a national high school All-American by everyone from Parade Magazine to EA Sports to USA Today, and was Gatordade's Pennsylvania Player of the Year. Knee injuries cost him both the 2008 and 2009 season, and when he was finally healthy he found himself so far down the Gators' depth chart, he decided to transfer to Minnesota for a chance to play. After sitting out 2010 for his transfer, he missed all of last year due to another knee injury. The coaches' kept him out of spring ball as a precaution, and he's worked his way back to Mike Rallis' backup so far in fall camp. After so many knee injuries, it's anybody's guess what Beal has left, but if he's anything even remotely close to the player he was coming out of high school, he could still be a very productive player in the Big Ten.

Linebacker is easily the deepest position on the team, so don't be surprised to see a few other names jump up into the rotation, and besides Rallis' middle linebacker spot, there should be competition for playing time all season long.