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Minnesota Football 2017 Preview: Linebackers Upgrade / Downgrade

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One of the strongest units of this year’s team, but is it stronger than last year?

NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Minnesota vs Washington State Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

I’m a huge fan of our linebackers for the 2017 season and beyond. But I was a huge fan of our 2016 linebackers. This debate should be fun!

2016

Starter: Jonathan Celestin, Cody Poock/Nick Rallis, Jack Lynn
Depth: Kamal Martin, Blake Cashman, Carter Coughlin, Julian Huff, Thomas Barber

This was a deep group that was the heart of the Gopher defense. Jonathan Celestin broke out in 2016 nearly doubling his production from 2015 and finishing 2nd on the Gopher defense in tackles with 80 while starting 10 games. Jack Lynn was third on the team in tackles and finished his Gopher career with 215 tackles and 28 starts. He was a leader on the 2016 defense. And then in the middle you had Cody Poock, when he was healthy and Nick Rallis.

These starters were quite good and integral to the Gophers having the #2 rushing defense in the Big Ten (in terms of raw yardage) and 19th nationally according to S&P Defensive Rushing stats.

Behind those starters you saw the emergence of Blake Cashman, who was maybe our best linebacker by the end of the year. Julian Huff made an impact in his sophomore year off the bench. And a trio of locally grown freshmen who appear to have VERY bright futures in Kamal Martin, Carter Coughlin and Thomas Barber. Those three were able to get some exposure on the field while not being relied upon as critical contributors. They learned on the job, getting used to Big Ten caliber play, while serving as complimentary roles to the starters mentioned above.

This unit was the heart of what was a very good 2016 Gopher defense.

2017

Starter: Jonathan Celestin, Cody Poock/Thomas Barber, Kamal Martin
Depth: Blake Cashman, Julian Huff, Carter Coughlin, Jaylen Waters, Everett Williams
Freshmen: Trenton Guthrie

So moving forward, the majority of the 2016 linebacking crew returns. Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis have departed but this unit remains very talented and probably has the best depth of any unit on the team.

What we know for certain is that this unit has all kinds of versatility and who is lining up and where is going to vary from game-to-game. At times you’ll see a base 4-3, at other times you may see a lot of 4-2-5 as the primary alignment and you are going to see one or more of our linebackers lining up at defensive end at times due to lack of depth and reliability against the rush at that position.

I also think there are two things we know with relative certainty.

One - There is a camp battle for the starting MLB spot between the elder and oft-injured Cody Poock and the young & talented Thomas Barber. Both of these guys would be playing on most teams around the league and the fact is that both are going to be important to this team’s success. Who gets the actual start is TBD, but we should feel good about either one.

Two - Celestin will be starting at OLB along with whoever wins the MLB job. He is the lone senior linebacker on the team and should have a fantastic final year as a Gopher. He and Poock/Barber will start and play regardless of the formation.

After that it becomes a game of versatility and match-ups. Kamal Martin may start at the other OLB spot when we line up in a base 4-3 defense. Carter Coughlin will get plenty of reps on the field whether it is as a stand-up DE or playing OLB. Blake Cashman deserves time on the field, and will get it. He was a monster in the second half of last season and his playmaking ability will be utilized. And don’t forget about Julian Huff who will also be utilized plenty this Fall, his role may be more used in passing situations but he is a versatile linebacker capable of playing on all downs.

Those are 7 quality names of kids who are going to not only contribute but will all be instrumental to the success of the 2017 Gopher defense. And spoiler alert...it will only get better in subsequent seasons when we see a starting linebacker trio of Coughlin-Barber-Martin in their upper-classmen years. That’s pretty exciting in my opinion, but I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Williams and Waters may be a little bit buried on the depth chart, expect to see them contribute on special teams and be ready to play when injuries arise. I have confidence that these upper-classmen are capable if given the opportunity, those opportunities just may not present themselves. And I fully expect to see Guthrie redshirt, if he’s playing then we have some sort of special player on our hands.

Upgrade/Downgrade

So is this an upgrade? Keep in mind that this unit was fantastic a year ago. The loss of Jack Lynn is a big one. But I do think this unit will be even better than it was a year ago. I fully expect that the sophomore trio of Coughlin-Barber-Martin to take a big leap after their freshman seasons. Their bodies will be more Big Ten ready and the speed of the game should slow down considerably for them. Just the improvement from those three alone is enough to make this unit an upgrade for me.

But with them you have some experienced leaders in Poock and Celestin. And a tenacious Cashman.

I’ve very excited about this unit in 2017 and beyond. Am I a little too bullish on the 2017 linebackers? Maybe, but I’m still buying.

Poll

Are the 2017 linebackers an upgrade over 2016?

This poll is closed

  • 81%
    Upgrade - without question
    (273 votes)
  • 4%
    Downgrade - we’ll miss Lynn more than expected
    (15 votes)
  • 13%
    Neutral - get off the fence, would you?
    (46 votes)
334 votes total Vote Now