The Gopher linebacking corps under went a shift last season adding more size in the middle with athleticism on the outside. Simoni Lawrence became the kind of playmaker that Tim Brewster wants on his defense. With two spots likely set there could be a fierce battle for the vacant outside position.
With two new coordinators taking over the defense and little having been said about what types of changes will be made to the style of play it is difficult to speculate fully on what will happen with the linebackers. Last season Ted Roof used the 3-4 defense more as the season went on and with that talent it is possible that Kevin Cosgrove and Ron Lee will choose to go that route at times as well. Cosgrove has been known for his development of linebackers so it would stand to reason that with the talent he has at his disposal he and linebacker coach John Butler should be foaming at the mouth to get to work.
Two starters return from 2008 and it is fair to say that both were surprisingly impressive last season. Lee Campbell was moved back to the middle shortly before the season started last year and many were skeptical to say the least. Campbell turned out to be the perfect middle linebacker for the Gopher defense. He is big, strong, and runs downhill very well. He is a throw back style of linebacker who loves to hit and make plays near the line. He is locked into the starting role heading into the fall, but should use the spring to get more comfortable in the middle and become the leader of the defense.
JUCO transfer Simoni Lawrence came to campus expected to play safety, but quickly made the transition to outside linebacker. It did not take long for Lawrence to show off his athleticism and big play ability. Despite sharing time with the now graduated Kevin Mannion, Lawrence was one of the top defenders on the team in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks. Last season was his first as a linebacker and it showed at times with him taking poor angles or over running plays. This spring he will work to refine his knowledge of the position and recognition of plays while not losing his big play ability and athleticism.
The fight for the outside spot opposite of Lawrence could come down to a battle of two Skyline teammates. Redshirt freshman Keanon Cooper and true freshman Spencer Reeves are the two early front runners to start with Campbell and Lawrence. Cooper is one of, if not the fastest players on the team and has coverage skill and pass rush skills from his time as a lineman in high school. He is on the small side still being generously listed at nearly 220, but he could make up for that in a similar way to Lawrence with speed and athleticism. Reeves is bigger and has more experience as a linebacker from his high school days. Reeves will have to shake off the rust this spring after sitting out a year, but his is a natural linebacker and should prove early on that he deserves playing time, if not a starting spot.
Entering spring sophomore to be Gary Tinsley will be the top back-up to Campbell in the middle. He is not nearly as big as Campbell, but he is ultra athletic. He was a big time pass rusher in high school and those skill could help him make plays behind the line. He played sparingly last season mostly on special teams. With a solid spring he should see his playing time increase, especially if the Gophers go to an ultra athletic line up.
Senior to be Nate Triplett has bounced between the outside and inside in his career and looks to be moving back outside again. He has been a stand out on special teams and solid as a back up, but has not found his place as a starter yet. This spring he will have to show a lot to over come the athletic linebackers that he is up against, but his experience will be invaluable both on the field and as a mentor to the younger players.
Every Gopher fan knows the saga of Sam Maresh and will be pulling to see him on the field as soon as possible. According to Tim Brewster he is ready to go, but will be brought along slowly. At this point is appears to be 50-50 if he will play in the fall, but everyone who knows Maresh knows he will go all out and will be tough to keep off the field. This spring will be about getting comfortable on the field again, but there is no doubt he is the middle linebacker of the future at Minnesota.
Ryan Grant is developing into the kind of versatile performer that coaches love. He will be the Gophers utility linebacker who is capable of stepping in at any position when the need arises. Grant could do a lot worse that shadowing Triplett this spring to learn from a player who has played a similar role in his career. He could also end up being the teams long snapper.
Cosgrove, Lee, and Butler should be foaming at the mouth with the amount of talent, athleticism, and options they have at linebacker. They could go with a super fast, ultra athletic line up featuring Lawrence, Cooper, Reeves, or Tinsley. They could also go big with Campbell, Triplett, Maresh, and Grant. The possibilities are endless with these eight player and it will allow the staff to dictate to the offense with their linebackers and adjust to any situation that could arise. One thing is for sure the Gopher linebackers will be fun to watch starting this spring.