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Minnesota Football 2018 Preview: Linebackers Upgrade/Downgrade

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Likely the strength of this Gopher defense, is it an upgrade over last year?

Middle Tennessee v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Moving into the second level of the defense we take stock of the Gopher linebackers

WHO IS GONE

Jonathan Celestin graduated, started all 12 games last year (25 over his career) and is now working to make the Atlanta Falcons’ roster. He finished 2017 second on the team in tackles and earned the team’s Outstanding Defensive Player award for last year. That is a significant loss to this unit.

Also gone is Cody Poock, the JUCO transfer who started 14 games over his sophomore and junior seasons only to struggle to see consistent playing time during his senior year.

Jaylen Waters and Everett Williams chose to transfer out of the program and are also no longer on the roster.

Overall this unit is losing 1 significant starter and losing one depth backer.

WHO RETURNS

Well you have 2 returning starters, 2 experienced guys and a handful of young guys brought in by the current staff.

Returning is the team’s leading tackler, Thomas Barber. This is one of the defensive building blocks for defensive coordinator Robb Smith. Barber racked up 115 tackles last year as a sophomore and returns at middle linebacker. Certainly Barber was helped with some of the studs we had plugging up the middle at defensive tackle, but he had an outstanding sophomore season and is key to 2018.

Also returning is Kamal Martin, one of the other linebackers brought in as part of the 2016 Empire Class. He had an up and down season but still finished 7th on the team in tackles, had 6.5 TFLs, 2 sacks, 2 fumble recoveries and a pick. At 6’3”, Martin is big and athletic, truly has the ability to be an outstanding outside linebacker.

Likely starting on the outside, opposite Martin, will be Blake Cashman. Now coming into his senior year, Cashman had a breakout sophomore season earning a Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week and Defensive MVP in the Holiday Bowl. But he struggled a bit more as a junior. Penciled in to start again, Cashman should hopefully be making plays again.

Julian Huff enters his senior season and will serve as a backup on the outside. Three years of contributing on both special teams and at linebacker with over 60 career tackles, will prove to be valuable should he be pressed into significant action.

The only other returner you may see on the field often is Trenton Guthrie who redshirted last year and will be a new name on the field for Gopher fans.

WHO IS ADDED

A few linebacker recruits were added in the most recent class. These are all guys that I suspect you will see on the field at times this season but likely staying within the 4 game limit to still maintain their redshirt status.

Mariano Sori-Marin will eventually be playing in the middle of the Gopher defense. He certainly will be playing behind Barber this year.

Braelen Oliver and Thomas Rush are expected to be outside linebackers in the Gopher defense. These true freshmen are unlikely to be counted upon in any meaningful way in 2018.

UPGRADE/DOWNGRADE

Well, losing Celestin is a pretty significant loss both in terms of his production and leadership. I enjoyed watching Cashman play so well 2 years ago and I really like the two juniors occupying the other starting spots. But I’m willing to call this group neutral until proven otherwise. Maybe Barber improves more and becomes and All-Big Ten caliber MLB, maybe Martin improves his consistency and becomes a real weapon at OLB. And maybe Cashman returns to form. That scenario isn’t all that unrealistic, but I’ll stick with neutral.