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Minnesota Football: Spring Position Previews - Linebackers

The Gophers have a wealth of talent at linebacker and the rest of the defense is better for it

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Minnesota vs Washington State Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Leading up to Saturday’s spring game at TCF Bank Stadium, we’re breaking down each position group. Today, we’re taking a look at the defensive position group with the least amount of question marks: Linebacker.

Key Departure(s): Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis
Key Returner(s): Jonathan Celestin, Cody Poock, Blake Cashman, Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin, Julian Huff, Everett Williams, Jaylen Waters, and Thomas Barber
Spring Enrollee(s): Trenton Guthrie
Fall Enrollee(s): None

Jack Lynn graduates after playing in 41 games and starting 28 of them during his career as a Gopher. As a team captain last season, Lynn finished the year with 77 tackles (third on the team) and 6.5 tackles for loss (tied for fifth on the team) after starting in 11 games. Senior Nick Rallis also departs after playing 36 games during his tenure at Minnesota. Primarily a special teams contributor early in his career, Rallis became a key contributor at linebacker the last two seasons. As a senior, Rallis totaled 37 tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss (tied for fifth on the team), with one sack. Both will be missed, but neither is irreplaceable.

A fresh start for defensive coordinator Robb Smith

New defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Robb Smith comes to Minnesota after a three-year stint at Arkansas in the same position. His tenure there did not end well, as the Razorbacks surrendered a 24-0 halftime lead to Virginia Tech, allowing 35 unanswered points in the second half. It was par for the course for an Arkansas team that had struggled all season long on the defensive side of the ball. According to S&P+, Smith’s Razorbacks ranked 63rd in the country as a unit, 112th in rushing defense, and 78th in passing defense.

This was a far cry from when Smith took over as defensive coordinator in 2014, when he oversaw an elite defensive unit. Under Smith, the Razorbacks improved in total defense (from 82nd to 7th), rushing defense (from 70th to 11th), and passing defense (from 49th to 26th), according to S&P+. It’s been implied by more than a few people that Smith and head coach Bret Bielema were simply not a good match at Arkansas and that a parting of ways will be mutually beneficial.

Prior to Arkansas, Smith was also defensive coordinator at Rutgers for a single season in 2012, under first-year head coach Kyle Flood. Smith’s defense that year ranked 28th in total defense, 6th in rushing defense, and 41st in passing defense. He also served as defensive coordinator at Maine from 2006-08. According to his official bio, Smith’s first defense at Maine ranked first in rushing defense, second in total defense, third in sacks, and fourth in scoring defense.

I know a lot of Gopher fans are disappointed that P.J. Fleck did not retain previous linebackers coach Mike Sherels — myself included — and that there were a lot of people sad to see former defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel go. But I think Robb Smith has a chance to succeed here at Minnesota. Aside from the last two seasons at Arkansas, he has had success at every stop.

As far is scheme is concerned, the Gophers will operate out of a base 4-3, but won’t be beholden to that front throughout games. Spring practice has already seen the defense experimenting with a 2-4-5 look, and I mentioned in the defensive line preview that Smith has been using linebackers Carter Coughlin and Trenton Guthrie in an “R” position. Players in the “R” role must be able to stunt and rush the passer or drop into man or zone coverage, and they’ll either be standing up or have their hand on the ground.

The Gophers are deep at linebacker

Second-leading tackler Jonathan Celestin returns for his senior season after recording 80 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and four pass break-ups. Cody Poock represents another returning starter at linebacker, but he has been limited this spring after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder in November. Poock missed the final four games of the last season, but finished with 24 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, and one pass break-up. Both will be counted on to lead this linebacker unit.

Blake Cashman was arguably the biggest surprise of last season, and he was rewarded with a scholarship for his efforts. As a redshirt sophomore walk-on, Cashman led the team in sacks with 7.5, and finished the season sixth on the team in total tackles with 45 (including 10.5 tackles for loss). You likely won’t see Cashman in action on Saturday as he recovers from offseason surgery, but you’ll be seeing a lot of him this fall. That much is certain.

The Gophers also have a lot of young talent at the linebacker position, in particular Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin, and Thomas Barber. All three will be sophomores this fall after seeing action last season. Coughlin played in 11 games and finished the season with 25 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two sacks. Martin played in 13 games and finished the season with 10 tackles, one fumble recovery, and one acrobatic interception against Iowa. Barber played in 11 games and finished the season with 12 tackles and one forced fumble. With Coughlin working out at the “R” position and Poock and Cashman sidelined for the spring, Martin and Barber have been seeing reps at first-string linebacker alongside Celestin.

Junior Julian Huff is another intriguing option at linebacker. He has played in 26 games over the last two seasons, recording a total of 52 tackles, five tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and one pass break-up during that stretch. He was a consistent spark off the edge during passing downs for the Gophers as a freshman, but didn’t have the same kind of success as a sophomore. I could be mistaken, but I believe Huff has also been limited this spring due to injury, but I wasn’t able to find confirmation of that.

Trenton Guthrie is the lone incoming freshman linebacker, and he enrolled early to participate in spring practice. I think being able to get his feet wet during the spring will help his development, but the Gophers are so deep at the linebacker position, I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t redshirt this season. I could see him contributing early in his career on special teams, but a year on the sidelines wouldn’t hurt.

Next: Defensive Backs.