Between now and the Gophers' spring game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 9, we'll be breaking down each position group on both offense and defense. We'll take a look at who is leaving, who is coming back, and what to watch for before Minnesota takes the field for fall training camp.
Next up? The linebackers.
As I've done throughout these position breakdowns, I'd like to note that this position group features one of the team's captains, and that captain is Jack Lynn.
A redshirt senior, Lynn is a third-year starter at his position. Lynn redshirted in 2012 and saw minimal playing time in 2013 before starting at outside linebacker in the season opener against Eastern Illinois in 2014. Lynn was sixth on the team in tackles in 2014 with 57 total and tied for third in tackles for loss with seven. In 2015, Lynn ranked fourth on the team in total tackles with 76 and led all other defensive players in tackles for loss with 11, including 1.5 sacks. Lynn was also named All-Big Ten Honorable Mention at the conclusion of the regular season.
Key Departure(s): De'Vondre Campbell
Key Returner(s): Jack Lynn, Cody Poock, Jonathan Celestin, Everett Williams, and Julian Huff
New Arrival(s): Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin, and Thomas Barber
Aside from the graduation of sack leader and starting outside linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, who worked out at the NFL Combine a few weeks back, last season's linebacker corps returns very much intact, with a few exciting new additions.
Lynn is the headliner among the returning linebackers, but redshirt junior Cody Poock is also an important cog in the middle of the defense. Poock battled junior Everett Williams for the starting middle linebacker spot and won out, finishing second on the team in tackles with 99, including 5.5 tackles for loss. He was also named All-Big Ten Honorable Mention at the end of the season. Poock had big shoes to fill after the departure of Damien Wilson, but was more than up to the challenge, even as he played through injuries all season long.
Junior linebacker Jonathan Celestin is the favorite to claim the starting outside linebacker spot vacated by Campbell. Celestin led the team in tackles with six in the Quick Lane Bowl. He finished the season with 43 tackles, four tackles for loss, a pass break-up, and a forced fumble.
I would be surprised if Lynn, Poock, and Celestin aren't the Gophers' starting linebackers in the season opener against Oregon State. Behind them, expect Williams and sophomore Julian Huff to see the field, as well. Huff, as I mentioned in the defensive line preview, made a name for himself last season rushing the edge on passing downs. He is undersized, but has the quickness and low pad level to make up for it. I'm excited for his future as a Gopher.
Redshirt senior Nick Rallis also came on strong towards the end of last season, notching a career-high nine tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss, in the regular season finale against Wisconsin. Redshirt freshman Jaylen Waters is also a name to watch after Tracy Claeys singled him out after the bowl game for being a standout during bowl practice.
It is going to be difficult to keeping incoming freshman linebacker Carter Coughlin off the field. Coughlin is the crown jewel of this latest recruiting class, and between his incredible talent on the field and his exceptional leadership off the field, I would be surprised if he doesn't have an immediate impact once he arrives on campus in the fall. Kamal Martin will be a freshman that can play a couple of different positions, but he appears set to start out at linebacker. I would imagine he and Thomas Barber are both likely candidates to redshirt this season.
Claeys has said that this is the deepest group of linebackers the Gophers have had to work with during his tenure here at Minnesota. I am inclined to believe him. With depth issues on the defensive line and plenty of holes that will need to be filled in the secondary, this linebacker unit could be the strength of the defense going into next season.