The spring superlatives series, which examines the strongest and weakest position groups throughout the Big Ten, continues with Minnesota.
Strongest position: Linebackers
Top returnees: Gary Tinsley (90 tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, 1 interception, 1 forced fumble in 2010); Keanon Cooper (68 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1 pass breakup); Mike Rallis (37 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 3 interceptions); Spencer Reeves (23 tackles, 2 tackles for loss)
Key losses: None
The skinny: Some might scratch their head at this selection, but Minnesota's struggles on defense last fall had more to do with a nonexistent pass rush than linebacker play. The Gophers return everyone at the linebacker spot and adds Brendan Beal, a transfer from Florida who sat out last season. Tinsley was the team's best defender last fall and could contend for All-Big Ten honors with a strong season in 2011. Rallis can be a difference maker if he stays healthy, as he showed with a team-leading three interceptions last season. Cooper also is healthier after playing last season with a bad back. Minnesota doesn't have a ton of options at a lot of positions, but linebacker is one of them.
Weakest position: Defensive end/pass rusher
Top returnees: D.L. Wilhite (14 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack in 2010); Matt Garin (13 tackles (13 tackles, 1 tackle for loss)
Key losses: Jewhan Edwards played DT but was Minnesota's top pass-rushing "threat," leading the team in both sacks (3) and tackles for loss (11) in 2010.
The skinny: If Minnesota plans to surprise people this fall, it must improve the nation's worst pass rush. The Gophers should be OK on the interior line, but the defensive ends really need to upgrade their play after falling well short of expectations this past season. Wilhite displayed potential as a freshman but took a step back last year, and the high hopes for players like Ra'Shede Hageman never panned out. New defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys wants to be more aggressive and turn the defensive ends loose, which could be good news for the group. While Minnesota could have some issues on offense at receiver and along the line, the pass rush is a glaring weakness right now.