Big Ten: De'Niro Laster

Spring game recap: Minnesota

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
10:30
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So much spring-game goodness on Saturday. We're recapping all the action today, and now it's time to review the Minnesota Golden Gophers' spring fling.

The team held a 70-minute scrimmage before about 5,000 fans at TCF Bank Stadium. You can find coverage of the day's events here, here and here.

Star of the game: Redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards ran 11 times for 46 yards and had the day's only touchdown on a 19-yard scamper.

How it went down: Gophers fans were hoping to see major improvement from an offense that sputtered down the stretch last season but witnessed the team reaching the end zone only one time.

"That's why you get this out of your system now," head coach Jerry Kill joked about the poor offensive showing.

It was only a spring game, and Kill believes the team did make progress on that side of the ball during its 15 spring practice sessions. But that wasn't really evident on Saturday.

Starting quarterback Mitch Leidner led the offense on six drives against the second-team defense, which led to just two field goals and an interception. Jalen Myrick made the pick on a play in which Drew Wolitarsky was open but Leidner underthrew the ball.

“I thought at times we put good drives together; we’ve just got to finish,” said Leidner, who was 7-for-15 for 74 yards. "And there were a couple times when me and the receivers have to get on the same page. But I mean, that’s why we’ve got however many months to work on that.”

Edwards was a bright spot, and Rodrick Williams Jr. ran for 52 yards on nine carries. Sophomore tight end Duke Anyanwu led all receivers with three catches for 19 yards.

The defense had a solid day with four sacks and that interception by Myrick. Linebackers Chris Wipson, De'Niro Laster and Nick Rallis each had seven stops.

But more than half of the projected starters on defense didn't play, including tackle Cameron Botticelli. Kill said he is out for 5 to 6 weeks with a broken foot. With the defense down so many players, it was disappointing that the offense didn't take advantage. The passing game remains an obvious area of need this summer for the Gophers.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the linebackers.

Illinois: The Illini lose an All-Big Ten player in Jonathan Brown but still have decent overall depth at linebacker. Mason Monheim started every game at middle linebacker in 2013, and Mike Svetina started all but one game at the star position. Both players return as juniors. Svetina will move into Brown's spot on the weak side, while the other position could be filled by T.J. Neal, who recorded 38 tackles last season. Ralph Cooper has logged significant reps as a reserve, and Eric Finney gives Illinois some flexibility after playing the star position (safety/outside linebacker).

Indiana: This becomes a more significant position under coordinator Brian Knorr, who plans to use a 3-4 alignment. Indiana should have enough depth to make the transition as it returns two full-time starters from 2013 -- David Cooper and T.J. Simmons -- as well as two part-time starters in Forisse Hardin and Clyde Newton, who started the final four games of his freshman season. Like Simmons and Newton, Marcus Oliver played a lot as a freshman and provides some depth. The key here will be converting all the experience into sharper, more consistent play.

Iowa: If you're of the mindset that Iowa always reloads at linebacker, you can rest easy this spring. If not, keep a very close eye on what happens as the Hawkeyes begin replacing one of the more productive linebacker groups in team history: James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens. There are high hopes for sophomore Reggie Spearman, who played in 10 games as a freshman last fall. Spearman, junior Travis Perry and senior Quinton Alston enter the spring as the front-runners to take over the top spots. The biggest challenge could be building depth behind them with Cole Fisher and others.

Maryland: The good news is the Terrapins return three productive starters from 2013 in Cole Farrand, L.A. Goree and Matt Robinson, who combined for 233 tackles, including 19 for loss. The bad news is Maryland loses its top playmaker at the position in Marcus Whitfield, who recorded nine sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss last season. But the overall picture is favorable, and the depth should be strong when Alex Twine and Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil return from their injuries. Young players such as Abner Logan (37 tackles in 2013) will push for more time.

Michigan: There are a lot of familiar faces in new positions as Michigan not only has shuffled the roles of its defensive assistant coaches, but also its top linebackers. Standout Jake Ryan moves from strong-side linebacker to the middle, while junior James Ross III moves from the weak side to the strong side and Desmond Morgan shifts from the middle to the weak side. Joe Bolden, who had 54 tackles last season, can play both outside and inside, and players such as Ben Gedeon, Royce Jenkins-Stone and Allen Gant add depth. The talent is there for a big year if the position switches pan out.

Michigan State: It won't be easy to replace the Big Ten's top linebacker tandem in Max Bullough and Denicos Allen, not to mention Rose Bowl hero Kyler Elsworth, but Michigan State has some promising options. Ed Davis appears ready to step in for Allen after recording four sacks as a sophomore. Junior Darien Harris and two redshirt freshmen, Shane Jones and Jon Reschke, will compete at middle linebacker. Returning starter Taiwan Jones is back at the star position, and Mylan Hicks should be in the rotation. Depth is a bit of a question mark here entering the spring.

Minnesota: The Gophers lose key pieces in all three areas of the defense, and linebacker is no exception as two starters (Aaron Hill and James Manuel) depart. Minnesota will lean on Damien Wilson, who started in 12 games at middle linebacker in his first season with the Gophers and recorded 78 tackles. Junior De'Vondre Campbell seems ready to claim a starting spot after backing up Manuel last season. There will be plenty of competition at the strong-side linebacker spot, as Nick Rallis, De'Niro Laster and others are in the mix. Jack Lynn is backing up Wilson at middle linebacker but could work his way into a starting spot on the outside with a good spring.

Nebraska: Optimism is building for the Blackshirts in 2014, thanks in large part to the returning linebackers. The three players who finished last season as the starters -- David Santos, Michael Rose and Zaire Anderson -- all are back, as Rose will lead the way in the middle. Josh Banderas and Nathan Gerry also have starting experience and return for 2014. If younger players such as Marcus Newby develop this spring, Nebraska could have the Big Ten's deepest group of linebackers, a dramatic departure from the Huskers' first few years in the conference. Good things are happening here.

Northwestern: The top two playmakers return here in Chi Chi Ariguzo and Collin Ellis, who combined for seven interceptions and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Northwestern's challenge is replacing the leadership Damien Proby provided in the middle. Ellis has shifted from the strong side to the middle, and Northwestern has moved safety Jimmy Hall from safety to strong-side linebacker. Drew Smith and Hall will compete for the third starting spot throughout the offseason. Sophomores Jaylen Prater and Joseph Jones should provide some depth.

Ohio State: Coach Urban Meyer has made it clear that Ohio State needs more from the linebackers, so it's a huge offseason for this crew, which loses superstar Ryan Shazier. The Buckeyes return starters at the outside spots in Curtis Grant and Joshua Perry, although competition will continue throughout the spring and summer. Redshirt freshman Darron Lee surprisingly opened spring practice Tuesday working with Grant and Perry on the first-team defense. Camren Williams appeared in all 13 games as a reserve and will be part of the rotation, along with Trey Johnson. Meyer said last month that the incoming linebacker recruits won't redshirt, which means an opportunity for mid-year enrollee Raekwon McMillan.

Penn State: Linebacker U is looking for more bodies at the position after struggling with depth issues throughout 2013. The Lions lose leading tackler Glenn Carson but bring back two players, Mike Hull and Nyeem Wartman, who started most of the season. The new coaching staff is counting on Hull to become a star as a senior. Brandon Bell, who appeared in nine games and recorded 24 tackles as a freshman, will compete for a starting spot along with Gary Wooten. Penn State hopes Ben Kline can stay healthy as he provides some experience, and incoming freshman Troy Reeder could enter the rotation right away.

Purdue: Expect plenty of competition here as Purdue loses leading tackler Will Lucas and must get more consistent play from the group. Joe Gilliam started for most of the 2013 season and should occupy a top spot this fall. Sean Robinson also brings experience to the field, and Ryan Russell could fill more of a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role this season. Redshirt freshman Danny Ezechukwu is an intriguing prospect to watch this spring as he aims for a bigger role. Ezechukwu is just one of several younger players, including decorated incoming recruit Gelen Robinson, who have opportunities to make a splash.

Rutgers: The Scarlet Knights return a good deal of production here with Steve Longa and Kevin Snyder, who combined for 219 tackles, including 15 tackles for loss and five sacks. Quentin Gause also is back after racking up 53 tackles (8.5 for loss) in a mostly reserve role last season. Gause likely will claim the starting strong-side linebacker spot as Jamal Merrell departs. The starting spots are seemingly set, so Rutgers will look to build depth with Davon Jacobs, who had 30 tackles as a reserve last season, and L.J. Liston, both sophomores.

Wisconsin: Do-it-all linebacker Chris Borland is gone, along with Ethan Armstrong and Conor O'Neill, so Wisconsin must replace three of its top four tacklers from 2013. Derek Landisch and Joe Schobert can be penciled in as starters, along with Michael Caputo, who played mostly safety last season but should slide into one of the outside spots. Marcus Trotter brings experience to the rotation. The spotlight will be on younger linebackers such as Vince Biegel, who had 25 tackles last season, as well as dynamic sophomore Leon Jacobs and Alec James, a decorated recruit who redshirted in 2013.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Big Ten, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, Damien Proby, Collin Ellis, Michael Trotter, Max Bullough, Jonathan Brown, Chi Chi Ariguzo, Mylan Hicks, Mike Hull, Jake Ryan, Ryan Russell, Joshua Perry, Derek Landisch, Jimmy Hall, Denicos Allen, Ralph Cooper, Curtis Grant, Darien Harris, Quinton Alston, Marcus Trotter, Joe Bolden, Royce Jenkins-Stone, Michael Rose, Joseph Jones, Camren Williams, Vince Biegel, Cole Fisher, Jack Lynn, Nyeem Wartman, Allen Gant, T.J. Neal, David Santos, Zaire Anderson, Joe Gilliam, David Cooper, Jon Reschke, Taiwan Jones, Ben Gedeon, Shane Jones, Brandon Bell, Nathan Gerry, Marcus Newby, Forisse Hardin, Mason Monheim, Mike Svetina, Eric Finney, Trey Johnson, Leon Jacobs, Reggie Spearman, Alec James, De'Vondre Campbell, De'Niro Laster, Damien Wilson, Josh Banderas, T.J. Simmons, Clyde Newton, Marcus Oliver, Ben Kline, Drew Smith, Nick Rallis, Troy Reeder, James Ross III, Joe Schobert, Raekwon McMillan, Gelen Robinson, Gary Wooten, Ed Davis, Travis Perry, Brian Knorr, Cole Farrand, Matt Robinson, Marcus Whitfield, Jaylen Prater, B1G spring positions 14, Darron Lee, L.A. Goree, Alex Twine, Yannik Cudjoe-Virgil, Abner Logan, Danny Ezechukwu, Steve Longa, Kevin Snyder, Quentin Gause, Jamal Merrell, Davon Jacobs, L.J. Liston

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.

[+] EnlargeAaron Hill
AP Photo/Jesse JohnsonAaron 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."

Big Ten recruiting all-name team

February, 8, 2013
2/08/13
10:30
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Dozens and dozens of recruits officially became Big Ten players during Wednesday's signing day. There are lots of new names to learn, and some of them are much more fun than others.

With that in mind, we've come up with our annual recruiting all-name team. There might not be a name quite as good as new Alabama signee Dee Liner, who of course, plays on the D-line. But the Big Ten is no slouch when it comes to monikers.

There's a Taco and a Sprinkle on the defensive line. There's a Nebraska linebacker who shares a name with the most famous woman in grunge and a Huskers offensive lineman who might be nicknamed "The Rock." Minnesota has a linebacker named De'Niro who hopefully won't keep asking Jerry Kill, "You talkin' to me?" We've got a Dad in the secondary, some Jazz in the receiving corps and a big ol' Butt at tight end.

What's in a name? Hopefully some great future players here who will keep brightening up our lives. Presenting the 2013 Big Ten recruiting all-name team:

Team Captain: Taco Charlton, DL, Michigan
Alternate captain: Courtney Love, LB, Nebraska

Offense

QB: Tanner McEvoy, Wisconsin
RB: Akrum Wadley, Iowa
RB: Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State
WR: Jazz Peavy, Wisconsin
WR: Marchie Murdock, Illinois
WR: Csont'e York, Michigan
TE: Jake Butt, Michigan
OL: Chongo Kondolo, Nebraska
OL: Dwayne Johnson, Nebraska
OL: Dallas Hinkhouse, Illinois
OL: Graham Bullmore, Northwestern*

Defense

DL: Taco Charlton, Michigan
DL: Chikwe Obasih, Wisconsin
DL: Tracy Sprinkle, Ohio State
DL: Henry Poggi, Michigan
LB: De'Niro Laster, Minnesota
LB: Courtney Love, Nebraska
LB: Josey Jewell, Iowa
DB: Sojourn Shelton, Wisconsin
DB: Daletavius McGhee, Minnesota
DB: Boaz Joseph, Nebraska
DB: Dad Poquie, Penn State*

Specialists

K: Hunter Niswander, Northwestern
All-purpose: Godwin Igwebuike, Northwestern

* walk-on
Jerry Kill got Minnesota back to a bowl game in his second season but needs to continue to add talent for the Gophers to become a Big Ten contender.

Kill received a nice signing-day surprise when junior college linebacker De'Vondre Campbell, who had been committed to Kansas State, signed with Minnesota. The 6-foot-5, 225-pounder also had offers from Texas and Tennessee and has three years of eligibility remaining. Kill talked about that and the Gophers' other recruits when I caught up with him earlier today for this Q&A:

What were your biggest priorities with this class, and how did you address those?

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidJerry Kill said that it takes a new regime three true recruiting classes to turn the corner with a program.
Jerry Kill: I think the biggest thing is, we lost five scholarship linebackers a year ago. We've got a couple of good players coming back, but we really needed to address that need. I think we did a great job of doing that with Damien Wilson, the national junior college player of the year, at 6-2, 250. I didn't know how it was going to go, but we were fortunate to land De'Vondre Campbell. Then we signed three freshmen who are all very talented. They've got length and can run. We set out a board full of these guys we needed to get, and the only one we didn't get was Duke Riley, who went to LSU. So we felt like we really addressed our linebacker need.

We thought we really needed to get a guy who can catch the football at receiver, and Drew Wolitarsky from California is that type of player. Eric Carter is another wide receiver and Donovahn Jones is a guy who was recruited by everybody in the SEC, whether it was on offense of defense, and we got him to flip. He can do a lot of things. So I think we helped ourselves at the receiving corps and linebacker corps and at kicker, with a guy who can kick and punt [Ryan Santoso].

There weren't a lot of Division I prospects in Minnesota this year, and you signed just one player from your home state. What kind of challenges did that present to you?

JK: You know last year, I think we got 13 or 14 kids out of Minnesota. This year wasn't as deep. Every year changes. Even in Florida, there are down years, but they have more population. I think we focus on trying to get the best players. ... We relied on a lot of people that we know. We had a lot of ties to the kids that we recruited, people that we know. You've got to cut down on recruiting mistakes as much as you can. You're always going to make some, but we feel like we did a pretty good job of researching and getting kids who can handle what we do here. Next year's different, in every state. When we have a year that's loaded in our state, we have to make sure we take care of it.

You had a freshman starting quarterback this year in Philip Nelson, yet you signed another quarterback in Chris Streveler. Do you see him competing right away, or are you looking at him for down the road?

JK: He's a very athletic kid. I've been on the road the last three weeks and he's been here already, working out. I know our strength coaches marvel at how far along he is and how fast and athletically gifted he is. So I think we have a great situation at quarterback, and also with Donovahn coming in. When we had Chris in camp, he also played receiver. So athleticism is more important than anything, and he'll work hard to get on the field anywhere.

Berkley Edwards has great bloodlines, as the younger brother of Braylon Edwards. What do you like about him?

JK: Where we're at right now, we've got two big backs who I thought had a tremendous bowl game and a true freshman who I think is going to be an excellent player in the Big Ten. But we don't have that quick-burst back that can get it over with, and Berkley brings something to the table we just don't have, which is get-it-over speed. He's been timed electronically at 10.6, 10.7 in the 100 meters, so he can really, really run. My phone's blowing up about him. A lot of people are excited. He's a great kid with a great work ethic, and he's got great bloodlines and football's important in that family.

You mentioned Donovahn Jones' versatility. Do you have an idea about where he might play?

JK: We're going to give him an opportunity at quarterback. I think that's what he would like to do, but he also wants to get on the field, so he's said, "Hey, I'll play receiver, too." I know he wants to stay on the offensive side of the ball. He was recruited by Arkansas and several others to play defense, but he wants to play offense. He's a talented kid. I think he's a youngster you get into camp and let him show what he can do.

You mentioned the linebackers. Do you envision getting some immediate help there?

JK: Absolutely. Damien is here already and he's impressed our strength coaches with how big and how athletic he is. And with De'Vondre, he's a 6-5, 225-pound guy who can run. What I'm really impressed with is our freshman, Chris Wipson and Rayfield Dixon, who's got a 38-inch vertical, and De'Niro Laster, who is one of those 6-4, 230-pound guys who can run. A year ago, we had to go out and get seven secondary players, and those kids played well for us this year. That's what we had to do at linebacker, and I think we've done the same thing. Athletically, certainly, we've helped ourselves there.

This is your third recruiting class. How close are you to building the kind of depth and roster you need?

JK: Really, it's our second recruiting class, because when we got the job, we honored the commitments of the previous staff and were pretty much committed up. So, really, as far as researching and recruiting, this is our second class. I think we are gathering some depth, more so than we had two years ago. But I think we're probably a year away. You need three true recruiting classes, really, to turn the corner. We did that at Northern Illinois. The third recruiting class seemed to really turn it. I do think we're going to be better. We improved this year, and I expect us to improve this upcoming year.

How much did making the bowl game help your recruiting efforts?

JK: We were fortunate that night that we were the [only] bowl game. Our kids played hard and it was fun to watch. We didn't win it, which was disappointing, but I know when we walked off the field we felt like we finally played a physical, hard football game we were used to playing as a staff where we were before. I think it kind of set the tone in the offseason. Our kids came back, went to work and are doing some things on their own. They haven't done that since we've been there. That's what happened at Northern when we turned the corner. When you can point to a bowl game and people see you on TV, it helped us on some of these kids. We wouldn't have been able to get in the same ballpark a year ago with the people we were recruiting against.

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