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Minnesota Football: Spring Position Previews - Linebacker

The Gophers’ linebackers have work to do this offseason

Minnesota v Illinois Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

With spring football practice at Minnesota under way after kicking off on Monday, March 29, we are breaking down each position group leading up to the spring game on Saturday, May 1.

2021 Linebacker Roster

Returning Starter(s): Mariano Sori-Marin, Cody Lindenberg, Josh Aune, and James Gordon
Other Returners: Braelen Oliver, Donald Willis, Jaqwondis Burns, and Lucas Finnessy
Spring Enrollee(s): Jack Gibbens and Devon Williams
Fall Enrollee(s): None

2020 Season In Review

I think we can all agree that Minnesota’s linebackers didn’t have the best season last year. And the reason I have four returning starters listed when they typically only ever have two or three linebackers on the field at one time is because defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Joe Rossi resorted to playing a game of musical chairs to see who would sink or swim. Growing pains were to be expected with a young and inexperienced position group, but I don’t think anyone was prepared for how rough those growing pains were going to be.

Mariano Sori-Marin, who was the only linebacker to start all seven games, struggled mightily for much of the season. There were times when he was out of position, struggled to shed his blocker, or took a poor angle to the ball. Head coach P.J. Fleck and Sori-Marin have both noted that a significant source of his struggles was the mental aspect of the game. As the most experienced linebacker on the roster, Sori-Marin was often too wrapped up in what his teammates were supposed to be doing, and his own responsibilities suffered as a result.

Abilene Christian grad transfer Jack Gibbens is on campus this spring to challenge Sori-Marin. Reports out of practice have been positive so far, and Gibbens is likely to be a key contributor in the fall. At 6’4”, he is bigger than Sori-Marin, but he also has good instincts and flies to the ball.

The Gophers will also benefit from the return of Braelen Oliver, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. He is practicing this spring, though he was still working his way back to being one hundred percent when the media was allowed to observe practice on Saturday, April 17. It was also made clear during that same practice that Rossi is still trying to find the right combination of linebackers. Sori-Marin, Gibbens, Oliver, Cody Lindenberg, James Gordon, and Donald Willis all figured into the rotation (Josh Aune did not dress for practice).

Who will be the starting linebackers against Ohio State? It’s anyone’s guess. With his speed and athleticism, Oliver was well on his way to securing a starting spot before he was sidelined last spring. Lindenberg got the surprise starting nod against Michigan in the opener last season before fading down the stretch, ceding most of his playing time to Aune. Gordon came on late, earning his first career start against Iowa before playing a majority of the snaps against Nebraska and Wisconsin. Willis played in every game but only saw a significant number of snaps against Iowa. Jaqwondis Burns, Lucas Finnessy, and Devon Williams are all wild cards.

Put simply, there is plenty of clay here. The question is whether Fleck and Rossi can mold it into a group of Big Ten linebackers. Because with the Buckeyes to open the season and a non-conference trip to Colorado on tap, they’re going to need hit the ground running.

Spring Watch List

  1. Competition at mike linebacker. I don’t think the coaching staff bringing in Jack Gibbens signals doom for Mariano Sori-Marin. I think it’s a sign that he needs to change his best. If he wasn’t focused enough on his own position last season, he will be now that he has to fight for it. I think the competition at mike linebacker is a net positive for this defense.
  2. Welcome back, Braelen. I don’t know about you, but I missed Braelen Oliver last season. He was so effective in creating havoc in 2019 and this defense sorely needs linebackers who can be disruptive and make plays in the backfield. I’m excited to see him back in action.
  3. Who will step up? Joe Rossi has plenty of options at linebacker but no clear choices. I don’t think any starting spots will be won in the spring, but I’ll be looking to see if anyone is able to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.