The Gophers brought in junior college transfer Damien Wilson this spring, knowing they have a big hole at middle linebacker, and Wilson has seemingly been everything they expected.
But the coaching staff remains excited about another middle linebacker candidate — redshirt freshman Jack Lynn.
Lynn has grown in both height and weight since signing with the Gophers out of Lake Zurich (Ill.) High School. He’s now about 6-4, 234 pounds, up from 6-3, 210.
Lynn missed Tuesday’s practice because he was ill, but he worked with the first-team defense for the first six spring practices, while the 6-2, 254-pound Wilson was getting acclimated on the second team.
“That’ll be a good, healthy battle in there,” defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said.
Coach Jerry Kill said the videotape from the first four practices showed a clear progression for Lynn: “First practice — very raw. Second practice — better. Next practice — good. Last practice — very good.
“So he’s one of those guys that just gets better,” Kill added. “And when you talk with him, he’s mature. He’s not the kind of guy that wiggles around.”
Lynn was noticeably composed when he met with the media last week for the first time as a Gopher. He said the main thing he needs to continue learning how to dissect opposing offenses.
Though he didn’t play in a game last year, he gained experience facing the Gophers’ first-team offense on the scout team. He acknowledged that the college game seemed pretty fast.
“My head was kind of spinning in my first camp last year,” Lynn said. “So it’s a slowed down a lot, but hopefully it slows down a little bit more for me.”
Lynn made 93 tackles as a senior for Lake Zurich, including seven tackles for a loss and 2 ½ sacks. He earned all-state honors and was listed as a three-star recruit by Rivals.com.
His added height helped him deflect a pass off his fingertips last week, and the extra weight makes a difference, too, he said.
“When you’re hitting linemen, you’re not really moving them the first day because you’re lighter,” he said. “But you can feel a big impact right now compared to last year.”
Outgoing senior Mike Rallis handled the Gophers’ middle linebacker duties last year, at 6-2, 245 pounds, and finished second on the team with 82 tackles. Overall, the Gophers made big strides defensively, but they still had trouble stopping the run.
They reluctantly played several true freshmen — including defensive backs Antonio Johnson, Damarius Travis and Eric Murray — knowing it would cost a year of their development. But the team is thrilled Lynn still has four years of eligibility remaining.
Wilson has two years of eligibility. He ranked fourth nationally among junior college players last fall with 122 tackles at Jones County (Miss.) Community College.
Wilson and Lynn have different builds, but as Kill said, “They both can run, they’ve both got long arms, speed and good strength. Damien’s probably a little further along in the strength category because he’s older, but they’re both very similar athletes.”
In junior college, Wilson faced a lot of spread offenses with one running back, so Claeys said he’ll need to get used to facing two-back sets with the Gophers.
“But he has some great instincts now as far as when the ball’s going to cut and things like that,” Claeys said. “A linebacker — the great ones — as soon as you get them lined up, they find the darn ball. You shouldn’t have to tell them a whole lot. He and Jack have come a long ways.”
• Wide receiver Devon Wright had surgery on a shoulder capsule Tuesday and will miss the rest of spring camp. The Gophers hope to have him ready for the start of fall camp.
• Offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig wore an orange non-participation jersey Tuesday. He’s having more trouble with his left kneecap, but it doesn’t appear he’ll need major surgery.
• The Gophers moved their next practice from Wednesday night to Thursday at 3:30 p.m. Kill has cancelled his one-day trip to the Masters with Gophers booster T. Denny Sanford. The university shelved all fundraising discussions with Sanford until merger talks conclude between Sanford Health and Fairview Health Services, a deal that could give the South Dakota firm control of the university’s medical center.