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Minnesota Football: Inexperience presents a challenge for Gophers’ young linebackers

Minnesota looks to Mariano Sori-Marin for leadership at linebacker

South Dakota State v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Mariano Sori-Marin is all but a lock to be starting for the new-look Gopher defense when Minnesota opens the season against Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium on Oct. 24, giving the junior linebacker the opportunity to erase some bad memories from a season ago.

When he stepped to the podium Monday afternoon to take questions from the media, it was not long before the Pioneer Press’s Andy Greder made mention of Sori-Marin’s struggles in the 2019 season opener against South Dakota State. With senior Kamal Martin sidelined due to a “coaches decision,” the Gophers relied heavily on Sori-Marin, Braelen Oliver, and Thomas Rush at linebacker and the Jackrabbits feasted on their youth and inexperience.

That game was the first start of Sori-Marin’s career, having been limited to special teams as a true freshman. He had a rough go of it, perhaps no more so than when he was caught flat-footed in the red zone in the third quarter and allowed the Jackrabbits’ tight end to slip behind him for a touchdown catch to give South Dakota State their first lead of the night:

Sori-Marin said he needs to continue to work on his pass coverage but that his vision has improved from a year ago, expanding across the field, beyond knowing his individual role’s responsibilities, “to make plays that he wouldn’t have been able to do last year.”

He credited both Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber with helping him correct mistakes from his sophomore season and grow as a player. But Barber has graduated and Martin is playing for the Green Bay Packers, and even his fellow contributors from that South Dakota State game are otherwise engaged, with Oliver sidelined this season while he recovers from a spring practice injury and Rush transitioning to rush end this offseason.

That’s a lot of pressure now on Sori-Marin, who was asked to play all three linebacker positions (the Gophers operate out of a base 4-2-5, but have lined up in 4-3 in certain situations) at various points throughout last season. And he was often playing out of position, as he is more suited to the mike linebacker spot but was frequently needed to fill in for Martin at will linebacker. It is assumed he’ll slide into the starting mike linebacker slot, taking over for Barber, but there is a great deal of uncertainty who will be starting alongside him.

Braelen Oliver was the prohibitive favorite to step in at will linebacker after racking up 22 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, and three sacks as a redshirt freshman, but a lower body injury appears to have sidelined him for the fall. Redshirt sophomore Josh Aune, a converted safety, has only seen action on special teams. The same goes for redshirt freshmen James Gordon and Donald Willis. Add four true freshmen to the mix and suddenly you understand why Minnesota made a push for Arizona grad transfer linebacker Tony Fields II.

And the South Dakota State game was a clinic in how youth and inexperience can hurt you on defense, especially in a season opener. Here, the Jackrabbits run out of a pistol wishbone set — an offseason wrinkled added to their offensive game plan — and dial up a wheel route. Oliver bites on the play-action and the running back blows right past him, running 53 yards untouched to the end zone (though the score would end up being nullified by a penalty):

In an interview with Gopher Illustrated’s Ryan Burns last month, defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said his expectation for Sori-Marin is “to be one of the best linebackers in the league.” He may need to be, both on and off the field, as he assumes leadership over a position group that will need to mature quickly in an abbreviated season.