Thursday, July 11, 2013
Gophers have questions, but options at LB
By Brian Bennett
Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is matter of fact when talking about the state of the Gophers' linebacker position.
"I think everybody knows that's the one group we need better performance out of to keep developing as a defense," he told ESPN.com.
Claeys might be able to get a strong performance out of his linebackers in 2013, but it won't be because of their experience. The position was the hardest hit by graduation and other factors in the offseason. Starters Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper completed their eligibility, as did backups Spencer Reeves and Ryan Grant. Florida transfer Brendan Beal gave up football after a string of injuries, and reserve Lamonte Edwards was recently dismissed from the team after an off-the-field incident.
Aaron Hill will be Minnesota's most experienced returning linebacker.
That leaves Aaron Hill as the lone returning starter, and one of the only guys with any game experience. But while the linebacker group is wildly unproven right now, Claeys does have some options.
"The one thing we did show this spring is we have enough bodies there," he said. "It's just a matter of, can they do what we ask them to do, and can they be consistent?"
Junior college transfer Damien Wilson enrolled in January and could start at middle linebacker. Redshirt freshmen Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis -- Mike's younger brother -- also got a lot of reps this spring. Claeys said all three started to come on strong in the last couple of weeks of spring practice.
This summer brought a wave of new faces at the position, including junior college transfer De'Vondre Campbell, and true freshmen De'Niro Laster, Chris Wipson and Rayfield Dixon. Campbell was a late addition just before signing day, and the coaches were excited about his 6-foot-5, 225-pound frame.
"He's a good-looking kid," Claeys said. "He's got length and height and everything you want in a Big Ten linebacker. Hopefully, the other guys are getting him comfortable in what to do scheme-wise and things like that. Then in fall camp, we'll spend a lot of time with De'Vondre and those new guys."
Hill, who has been a solid if unspectacular player for the Gophers so far, has taken on added importance this summer. With the coaches unable to work directly with players until next month, Claeys is relying on his veteran senior to help get the new guys up to speed during voluntary workouts.
"I think we can make some jumps during the summer," Claeys said. "By getting De'Vondre and those guys comfortable with the base calls of our scheme, they may have a chance to help us. The more time our linebackers put in together, the better we'll be."
Claeys said every linebacker will get a chance to show what he can do during the first two weeks of fall practice, and then the Gophers will start paring things down. He likes the speed and athleticism Minnesota has brought into the program at that position. The question is whether the young players can overcome their inexperience.
"I think we've got a good mix there," he said. "But we're going to need some kids to help us and contribute who haven't played a lot."