First, a quick rant. I recognize a few things about ESPN's B1G blog: they have to pander to the national programs, such as Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan, because that's where the eyeballs come from; it's August and they're desperate for content; the $100 it takes to buy a 75-minute flight from Chicago to Minneapolis on occasion would send the world wide leader into a financial death spiral. But I've always thought they were better than Tom Dienhart. Old jaundice tooth Tom, who thought Chris Hawthorne was the dark horse candidate to be the Gophers kicker this year and that the Gophers lacked secondary depth despite the presence of Phantom Antonio Thompson.
I'm less sure of that after Monday's ranking of the B1G teams. Not based on where the Gophers were ranked, which was 10th (that would be the bottom end of where I'd rank them, but it's not beyond the realm of possibility - one could go as high as 5th or 6th, but you'd be huffing lacquer thinner if you bought into that at this point). No, I take umbrage to their blurb justifying the position:
"On paper, the Gophers look several steps behind
the top teams in the league across the board"
Ok, I get this to a degree. Recruiting rankings do have some correlation with results on the field, so by that measure, we probably are several steps behind. Right or wrong, that's a defensible position. But across the board? We lose three starters on offense and four on defense, is that materially worse than the top teams in the conference? We start upper-classmen at 16 of the 22 non-specialist positions, that can't be horrific, right? I get that the Gophers always need to be stuck with a Sisyphean narrative, but we don't need hyperbolic hyperbole on top of it.
"What's their strength, running the football?"
C'mon, man. How about the 4th best scoring defense in the conference and the 24th best in the country? That has to be a strength, isn't it? I know our passing offense was shit last year and so it's easy to waggle the dong about how running the football was a strength. But the defense was legitimately good last year. And no, that wasn't all Ra'Shede Hageman and Brock Vereen, so find another tack.
"Still, coach Jerry Kill and his staff get the benefit of the
doubt because of their remarkable progress a year ago."
Come again? What benefit of the doubt are we getting here? Ranking us over Indiana, whose defense is comprised of the chalk on the Memorial Stadium turf? Over effing Buttgers? Or over Illinois and Purdue, who combined for a whopping one conference win last year? They played each other! One of them had to win! Where are we if we don't get the benefit of the doubt, pray tell?
Again, the ranking is fine. But that justification is flaccid. Do better ESPN.
On to the linebackers!
* * *
Linebackers always scared me a little bit. Not piss-your-pants frightened, scared; more like, y'all are freak of natures scared. I was an undersized offensive tackle, weight-wise, and was reasonably fast for my size. My feet were okay, but as a tall guy, I always had issues maintaining leverage and getting lower than the shorter defensive players. But here were guys who were my weight, maybe an inch or two shorter and way faster than me. And the good ones had superb leverage. They could get a running start and blow me up on blitzes, which hardly seemed fair. I like to think I gave as good as I got, but I'm lying to myself. The semi-concussions, arms covered in contusions and severe facial tick I have to this day are mostly due to linebackers. Hate you linebackers.
I love the Gophers linebackers this year, though. We've got size, as most of the two deep are at or around 240lbs, height as most are around 6'0 to 6'2" and, incredibly for us, speed. How about that. The big concern, and this will become immediately clear, is depth (also mentioned in my review of the open practices).
We start with De'Vondre Campbell, who is my height (6'5"), my weight (245lbs) and looks absolutely nothing like me. Where I'm fat, slow and balding, Campbell is ripped, fast as a damned deer and has the flowing locks of Predator that are becoming the hallmark of this defense. That is blessed. Campbell was a spot starter last year, but spent most of the season backing up James Manuel at WLB. He accounted for 41 tackles and generally looked pretty competent out there. Since then, he's added about 20lbs of weight and is apparently still fast enough to be an asset in pass coverage. He was a raw talent last year, so there may be some learning curve issues now that he is the full-time starter; but he has athletic ability and size we haven't seen at the linebacker position too often here at Minnesota.
Backing him up are, uh, yeah, there's that depth issue. It wouldn't surprise me (and this won't be the last time I say this) if the linebackers are switched around a little bit in the event one of them is injured. At this point, De'Niro Laster appears to be second team at Will. He's got the size, but as a red-shirt freshman, I'd be a little concerned about tossing him out there on a full-time basis. He looked like a monster in the latter half of this past weekend's scrimmage; but I've been burned too many times by breakout scrimmage performances to lend too much credence to that.
The one thing I do like is that we have two Apostrophe-In-Name Players (AINPs) in the two deep at WLB. Also blessed.
If you can imagine it, the depth at the strongside linebacker position is even more bleak:
Blurgh. Jack Lynn spent much of last year as the nominal backup at MLB, but didn't get much run, as he only played three games. He's big, at 6'3, 238lbs, so he should have enough size to fight off lead blocks to attack the run and, though I didn't pay much attention to at the practices I attended, has enough speed to be capable of guarding a tight end in man-to-man situations. I like Lynn; I just don't know very much about him given limited game experience
Backing him up are Rayfield Dixon and Cedrick Dicke. Dixon is of a little different mold than Lynn, with the same height, but at only 209lbs. He has decent speed and, in my know nothing opinion, is probably versatile enough to move over to the weakside spot should Campbell get hurt. Dixon has looked good in my limited practice observations, showing good reactions in both rush and pass defense and, despite being undersized, has been capable of shedding blocks and making tackles. Dicke was a PWO for the Gophers and we love him for that.
Another guy worthy of mention, but not listed here, is true freshman Jonathan Celestin. He has looked very solid in camp and received rave reviews from the coaches. I fully expect him to red shirt, but given the depth at all of the linebacker positions, if injuries begin to mount, he may get some run.
TACKLING MACHINE SMASH
Damien Wilson is a monster who gets no love. The guy was majestic last year, with 78 tackles, 5.5 for loss and one sack and has failed to show up on any pre-season all conference lists (correct me if I'm wrong, of course). With the attrition at the Mike position in the B1G following the 2013 season, I would have expected to see a 3rd-team spot somewhere. But, nay, no love for Damien. Such is the life of a Gopher.
I could go on about Wilson, but superlatives begin to fail at a certain point. He was always around the ball, tackled anything that was close and made very few mistakes. Coming in as a JUCO transfer, that's about all you can ask for. There was some question about Kill's staff's ability to recruit and develop linebackers ("question" is relative, of course - in this case I mean relative to their abilities to recruit and put defensive backs and linemen into the NFL, which are largely beyond reproach), but Wilson mitigated that concern to a large extent. I expect him to have a big season and contend for all conference honors.
Backing him up...hey, depth concerns again! Nick Rallis backed up All Walk On American Aaron Hill at Sam last year, but is now the provisional favorite to back up Wilson at MLB. Brother of soon-to-be WWE star (and former Gopher MLB himself) Mike Rallis, Nick is on the shorter side of MLBs at 5'11", but will carry on the Rallis Gopher legacy with pride. Wipson redshirted last year after tearing his ACL as a high school senior, but may get some run on special teams this year. I also wouldn't surprise me to see Laster move to MLB in the event of typhus breaking out at the starting linebacker table.
So, we've got decent to good starters and a whole lot of untested depth behind them. Come to me, Rolaids.
Rubric: Mike Sherels - B-
I would be remiss if I didn't include Mike Sherels as my favorite all-time linebacker at the U, first, because it's legitimately true and second, because he's the new linebackers' coach. I've always admired his passion for the Gophers and it's great that he's been able to hook on with this staff and lead the position he played with such tenacity.
Sherels was a walk on to the football program, but by the time he graduated, he was a two-time captain (the first time a walk on ever held that honor for Minnesota) and led the 2006 squad with 104 tackles. Ski-U-Mah, Mike.
I'm giving this current team a C. I love Wilson and think Campbell will play in the NFL in two years, but there are just so many unknowns with this position. Is Lynn ready to be a full-time starter? Can the crew of red-shirt freshmen capably fill in if a starter goes down? Can we all get on liver transplant lists now or do we have to wait?
(Frothy word count: 1,734; total 100k challenge word count: 8,226)
Rubric: Karl Mecklenburg - A
When I thought of Gopher LBs, my first thought was of Mecklenburg. Not because I remember him playing for the Gophers all that well since I would have been 5; but rather as a member of the Denver Broncos. There is some significance there because I remember having pride that this beast of a linebacker was one of us. Mecklenburg led the team in tackles for loss in 81 and 82 and was selected in the last round of the NFL draft and went to be a key member of the great Broncos teams of the 80s. He played in a gang of Pro Bowls and had a pants load of sacks. As a pro he was nicked named the “Snow Goose” and the “Albino Rhino”, how incredible is that? Mecklenburg was also an awesome defender to control in Tecmo Bowl and as wiki puts it, “Mecklenburg's character mirrored his real-life skills, especially his ability to make seemingly impossible interceptions”. Here’s to hoping that this year’s Gopher LBs can wreak havoc in a similar way.
A lot of the Gophers’ success this season will be determined by the play of their linebackers. More specifically, the play of the two JUCO transfers playing in their second season with the team. Damien Wilson, a senior, will be given the chance to build off a solid campaign where he was second on the team in tackles. I would like to see him make the jump from solid-starter-dude to crushing-impact-player-dude.
De’Vondre Campbell has apparently gone from Predator-popsicle-stick to a more bulked up full-diesel-Predator. Articles abound regarding his access to better foods and baller strength and conditioning program helping him get to around 240 pounds. Campbell, a redshirt junior, will find himself playing more of a full time role with the team in 2014 after backing up James Manual much of last year. As always, his ability to see in heat signature when necessary is a huge advantage. True story: I bought a jersey t-shirt last year that was #26 and on the back I put TREVONDRE because you can’t use actual player names. Big fan.
Jack Lynn appears to be the third linebacker that will start, but Nick Rallis is also an option. Both are redshirt sophomores. With Lynn (6’3”, 238), the Gophers would have very good size and athleticism across all three spots.
Depth is a concern here, especially after the Cody Poock ACL tear in the spring. Redshirt freshman De’Niro Laster has size and a fantastic name, so I’m pulling for him to be in the mix this year. Rayfield Dixon is another redshirt freshman that could make an impact. Can you imagine how awesome it would be to have De’Niro and De’Vondre starting together? Maybe this is something we can hope for with the 2015 De’fense.
Overall TRE'VONDRE grade: B