- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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After two rough seasons, the arrow is pointed up for Minnesota football. The Gophers are one of just three undefeated teams left in the Big Ten, and they're already halfway to bowl eligibility, having matched their wins total (3) from each of the past two seasons. They're shown improvement along both lines. They've already intercepted more passes (5) than they did all of last season (4). They also survived an ankle injury to senior quarterback MarQueis Gray in last week's win against Western Michigan. Senior linebacker Mike Rallis, who made his first collegiate start as a freshman in the 2008 Insight Bowl, has lived through the losses and the transition, and he hopes to go out the program headed in the right direction again. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Rallis has started the past season and a half and ranks second on the squad in tackles with 21 this year.
ESPN.com caught up with Rallis this week in advance of Minnesota's game against Syracuse.
Minnesota has had some tough times in recent years. What's it like being around the program and being around campus with the team at 3-0?
Mike Rallis: It's an exciting atmosphere around the program, but we know we've got a long way to go still. We're just out here grinding every practice, trying to get better.
Coaches talk about the challenges of dealing with success. How is your team handling it early on this season?
Rallis: I think guys have stayed pretty focused and realize that we've got a long way to go. We're going to play a lot of good teams this year, it's a long season. The teams that do well at the end of the season are the teams that continue to build and get better, as opposed to staying the same throughout.
It looks like your teammates were having some fun and showing off their dance moves in this video. Why didn't we see you in it?
Rallis: (laughs) I don't get too caught up in that stuff. When I'm around the football facility, I'm all business.
Where does Syracuse rank among the teams you've played so far this season?
Rallis: I think they're the best team we'll have played so far. They've got a lot of good players out there, a lot of skill players on offense who can hurt you if you give them any kind of space, and the quarterback's a pretty good player, so we're definitely going to have to step our game up to beat this Syracuse team.
What's stood out to you when you've scouted [Syracuse QB] Ryan Nassib?
Rallis: A lot of college quarterbacks stare down their targets, and Nassib will go through his progressions, through his reads. He'll look off a couple guys and move onto the next progression. That's a pretty good quality as a quarterback.
How would you evaluate the defense's performance through the first three games?
Rallis: I think we've done a lot of good things. The main thing that's improved from last year is how fast we've played. Less thinking, less processing, more just going out there and playing fast, great effort running to the ball. But I think we've got a long way to go with some of our fits, some of our assignments and just being more consistent overall as a defense.
The defense already has more interceptions than all of last year. What do you attribute that to?
Rallis: There's a couple things. We made a point of emphasis throughout the offseason of, when we get an opportunity to catch a ball or recover a fumble, we're going to do it. The other thing that I think has been big is the pressure the D-line has created on the quarterback to force some bad throws. It gets him a little weary in the pocket.
You've got a lot of experience at linebacker. How do you factor into leading the team, and where do you think the linebacker group is at right now?
Rallis: We've got a lot of veteran guys who play in the rotation. We have a deep corps, and we look to ourselves to set the tone every practice, every game, come out with great energy, get everybody lined up and just play our roles on the defense.
Where did the idea of having a different player wear Gary Tinsley's jersey number every game come from (Tinsley, a former Gophers linebacker, died suddenly in April)?
Rallis: Pretty soon after Gary had passed, we talked about different ways that we were going to honor him. Some of the players suggested that, and I think it's just been a great way to call attention to Gary and tell his story and honor him in front of a large audience. The TV and the media have to look every game and say, 'Why is so-and-so not wearing his regular number? Why is he wearing 51?' It's because of Gary Tinsley.
What was it like for you to wear 51 against New Hampshire?
Rallis: It was really special. It was a little weird seeing it in my locker at first, but I put it on and I really felt like I had the power of two in me. I felt Gary's presence throughout the whole game, and I do every game, but especially when I put on that 51. After the game, I didn't really want to take it off. I wore it to the post-game press conference, and reluctantly gave it back the next day.
How meaningful was Gary's life to you and your teammates?
Rallis: It's a great inspiration. Gary's a special kid, a very, very special person to me in so many different ways with his attitude toward life. I just try to emulate what he did every day, bring a great attitude, great energy and doing everything he can to win on the field.
A lot of people are asking if Minnesota can keep this going. In your opinion, what needs to happen for the team to keep the momentum?
Rallis: It's all about preparation. We can't have one off practice for the rest of the year. We've got to keep building, we've got to keep getting better. We can't go through the motions. Every practice, we've got to have a sense of urgency to continue to improve.
After two rough seasons, the arrow is pointed up for Minnesota football. The Gophers are one of just three undefeated teams left in the Big Ten, and they're already halfway to bowl eligibility, having matched their wins total (3) from each of the past two seasons.