When the Gophers went looking for middle linebackers in last winter’s recruiting class, they knew it was a position where they couldn’t afford to miss.
Last year’s starter, Mike Rallis, was graduating, and as much as the coaches like current redshirt freshman Jack Lynn, they knew he needed to keep adding bulk.
So the Gophers took their chances with junior college transfer Damien Wilson, a player who came recommended by former NFL head coach Ray Perkins.
Perkins caught passes from Joe Namath at Alabama in the 1960s and then from Johnny Unitas with the Baltimore Colts. Perkins eventually replaced Bear Bryant as Alabama’s coach and had stints coaching the NFL’s Giants and Buccaneers.
Last year, at age 70, Perkins decided to give coaching another shot — at Jones County (Miss.) Junior College, of all places. Wilson went to Jones County to play linebacker and made 122 tackles, earning acclaim as a national junior college defensive player of the year.
“Perkins said to play for him is not different than playing [for Bryant],” Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “You’re not going to survive Bear Bryant if the game of football’s not important to you. When the kid can play for [Perkins], it just shows how important the game is to him.”
Wilson grew up in tiny Gloster, Miss. (population 960), and played linebacker at Amite County High School. He tried playing defensive lineman as a freshman at Alcorn State, but that just reaffirmed how much he wanted to be a linebacker.
He transferred to Jones County, where he said Perkins “helped me become the man I am today.”
“At first I didn’t know who he was,” Wilson said. “But then I looked him up, and I was like, ‘Whoa.’ … He gave me a sense of responsibility. I remember one time I missed practice, and he almost ran me to death. I haven’t missed another practice since.”
Wilson had 16 other scholarship offers last fall, but he saw an opportunity to step right in at middle linebacker for the Gophers. He enrolled in January and went through spring practice, where he found himself in a fight for the starting role with Lynn.
Early in fall camp, Lynn has been working with the first unit and Wilson with the second. But it seems like a matter of time before Wilson takes over, especially as he becomes more comfortable with the defensive schemes.
Lynn has added weight, but he’s still long and lean at 6-3, 234 pounds. Wilson is more compact at 6-2, 254.
“Damien being older and already playing junior college, he’s just a lot stronger,” Claeys said. “With another year in the weight room, Jack’s going to put on some more bulk and be a little bit closer to where Damien is.”
Gophers coach Jerry Kill said the Gophers are going to need both Wilson and Lynn to contribute this season, in some order. Wilson doesn’t seem too worried about it, calling it “a great competition.”
Another benefit of coming to Minnesota, for Wilson, was reuniting with his cousin, David Cobb, a junior running back.
Wilson and Cobb said they were like brothers growing up in Mississippi before Cobb moved away to Texas. Now they share an apartment.
“I think [Wilson’s] feeling pretty good,” Cobb said. “He’s always been a kid with a lot of confidence. Now, just knowing what to do and where to be [in Claeys’ defensive system], he can play a little faster. And I think he’s getting it down.”
Whether it’s Wilson or Lynn — or both — the Gophers need someone to emerge as a quality Big Ten middle linebacker. For now, they just hope old Ray Perkins was right.