Tracy Claeys speaks about the battle at middle linebacker, between senior holdover Gary Tinsley and sophomore newcomer Brendan Beal, as a classic head-butting, may-the-best-man-win sort of arm-wrestle.

"It'll be a good little competition," the Gophers defensive coordinator said. "If you don't like competition like that, you don't belong in the Big Ten."

But Claeys can't keep up the one-or-the-other pretense for long. On a defense that ranked near the bottom of every significant statistic, there's no use in pretending that talented tacklers such as Tinsley and Beal won't be on the field most of the time, regardless of who edges the other.

"We'll have a role for them all," Claeys said. "Both guys will play all they can handle."

Still, as spring practice draws to a close, the Gophers have reason to feel good about their middle-linebacking corps. Tinsley led the Gophers in tackles last season, and is getting his speed and intensity back after sitting out a couple of weeks because of a hamstring injury.

And Beal? Well, there's no questioning his desire.

"I'm like a caged dog right now," the 21-year-old Pennsylvanian said. "Sitting around, it just makes you nuts."

Sitting around on gameday is all he has done since his nationally recognized senior season at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa. -- four years ago.

Beal was among the top 10 major-college prospects in the East, along with Terrelle Pryor. The Buckeyes quarterback is entering his senior season of a memorable career, while Beal, who originally committed to Urban Meyer and Florida, has yet to play a single down. An injured knee, a redshirt season and a mandatory year off after transferring to Minnesota have kept him leashed. The leash is off, however, and Beal, whose speed belies his 6-3, 245-pound size, quickly made an impression on Claeys and new coach Jerry Kill as a quick-to-the-ball run-stopper.

"I can take on blocks. I'm a big, physical guy and I can run," Beal said. "That's where I live, in the middle. My goal is to make sure nobody can run on us -- that's what I've done my whole life."

That's what he will do for the Gophers, Claeys figures. "He's made some plays. He does a nice job in the box, shedding blocks," the new coordinator said. "He's got to play better in space than he is right now, but he's got the summer."

While Beal was making plays, Tinsley was sidelined by a hamstring injury for a couple of weeks. When he returned, Claeys and Kill toyed with the notion of moving him outside, in hopes of making him a pass-rusher. Tinsley did well, Claeys said, but they decided last week to keep him in the middle, his natural position.

"That position has more responsibility -- you have to set the front, make sure of the calls. We've got to make sure we've got at least two guys who know it," said Claeys.

Still, Tinsley, who made 90 tackles last year, will have plenty of responsibility. "We will have a specialized package where our four best pass-rushers will be in the game. And from what we've seen from him, he will definitely be one of the four," Claeys said. "Pass situations, he's going to be in the game."

So much for the kill-or-be-killed competition.

"If [Tinsley] and I were in the middle together, that would definitely be something to see," Beal said. "We're two guys who definitely love to hit, so it would be fun. We work really well together."