Manuel relishes switch to a more physical role with Gophers

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 29, 2012 - 12:54 AM

The move from defensive back to outside linebacker is working well. "I get to hit guys,'' Manuel said.

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The move from defensive back to outside linebacker is working well for the Gophers' James Manuel. "I get to hit guys,'' he said.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune

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After two seasons of shadowing slot receivers all over the field, James Manuel's new gig comes with a far less tedious, far more fun benefit:

"I get to hit guys," Gophers' newly minted outside linebacker said.

Consider them warned.

At 6-2 and just under 220 pounds, Manuel is better suited to the more physical play near the line of scrimmage, Minnesota coaches realized last season, than the chase-and-track duties of the secondary. And presented that way, it sounded like a good time to the junior-to-be from Indianapolis, too.

"I was definitely open to it. Anything to help the team out," Manuel said. "I like [hitting], and especially in the defensive scheme we play, I have a lot of shoot-the-gap [responsibility], to get there and make the tackle."

He's still got the speed of a safety, which is what persuaded coach Jerry Kill that the move would work. Manuel had made 29 tackles as a freshman, but that declined to just 11 last season as his job evolved into more pass coverage on receivers quicker than him.

"All the people who are getting good inside receivers and then running vertical routes on you -- it was difficult for him," Kill said. "He's an in-between guy. We're going to be playing a spread offense one week, then play a two-back [the next]. We felt like moving him down [closer to the line] gave him a chance to play in the box, not be in as much space, and use his abilities better."

Manuel had played a similar role for Warren Central High when it won the Indiana state championship in 2009, moving forward on passing downs. "I was a walk-down linebacker in high school, when we were in nickel" defense, he said. "I know how to do it."

Now he'll do it full-time, filling gaps and pursuing ball-carriers on running downs, trying to get to the quarterback in the pocket, or covering the running back in pass coverage. It's the job Mike Rallis held last year, but the senior linebacker has shifted to the middle-linebacker position for now. With Manuel at linebacker, sophomore Derrick Wells can move to safety from cornerback, "and he can run, run, run," Kill said.

And since he's a former safety, Kill foresees giving Manuel occasional pass coverage assignments, too, a flexibility he hopes might confuse some teams.

"When you recruit, you want a guy like that for linebacker. It prevents us from having to go nickel all the time," Kill said. "He can be a nickel back and you can disguise what you're doing a little bit."

Sounds good to Manuel, who said he's catching on pretty quickly.

"By halfway through spring, I should be comfortable," said Manuel, who hopes to put another five pounds of muscle on his frame by fall camp. "It's definitely a better fit."

Jones gets a grip

Marcus Jones got noticed last spring for his supersonic speed, but also for a freshman habit of dropping passes. This year, Kill isn't certain which is more astonishing about the teenage receiver: That he's back on the field only five months after major knee surgery, or that he seems to have completely kicked that habit.

"In our first three practices, the kid never dropped a ball," Kill said. "He's really gotten better [after] having an ACL injury -- it's kind of an amazing thing."

Jones is wearing a no-contact green jersey during spring practice, but has taken part in all offensive drills, including seven-on-seven passing drills, so far.

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