The Gophers have big plans for tight end Brandon Lingen this season. They just need to make sure he’s healthy enough to play first.
Lingen had shoulder surgery in April, after the spring game, and the Gophers have been waiting for doctors to clear him for contact during training camp.
The Gophers didn’t list Lingen on the depth chart they released Tuesday, ahead of the Sept. 1 opener against Oregon State.
“It’s been tough,” Lingen said earlier this month. “As a competitor, I want to be out there.”
Lingen is a team captain, an academic All-America and a preseason candidate for the John Mackey Award, given annually to the nation’s top tight end.
He’s only a junior, but if he can stay healthy, he looks ready to follow in the footsteps of former Gophers tight ends Maxx Williams, Matt Spaeth and Ben Utecht.
The 6-5, 250-pound Lingen started playing tight end for Wayzata, long before he had the bulk to go with the position.
“I just saw his frame as a sophomore, and I watched him on the basketball court,” Wayzata coach Brad Anderson said. “He was one of those gritty basketball players, and you see guys like that who make good football players. They know how to get open, know how to catch the ball.”
Lingen suffered a shoulder injury his junior year at Wayzata, which put his recruitment on hold. The Gophers said they needed to see him play as a senior before they could offer a scholarship.
“At that point I wasn’t healthy, so it wasn’t anything that I took personally,” Lingen said. “It was more of a challenge to get back and try to be as healthy as I could.”
Lingen succeeded. But by signing day, the Gophers had a recruiting class with two other tight ends, Gaelin Elmore and Jerry Gibson. They also had three other tight ends coming back that fall in Williams, Drew Goodger and Lincoln Plsek.
So it was a crowded position room at first, but Lingen still played 11 games as a freshman. He caught only two passes that season, but the tight end room had changed considerably by last year. Williams was in the NFL. Goodger had graduated. Plsek was injured. Elmore was a defensive lineman, and Gibson eventually made that same position change.
Suddenly, Lingen was a go-to target for Mitch Leidner. Lingen caught 33 passes for 428 yards and three touchdowns. That included 100-yard receiving games against Michigan and Iowa — not bad for a guy who specializes in blocking.
“He’s not a former receiver playing tight end,” Anderson said. “He fits well with the old style of tight end — a guy who excels at blocking first. He uses good technique. He’s wiry strong. He’s really good at the point of attack.”
He’s also good in the classroom. He posted a 3.85 grade-point average last fall, leading to academic awards, and he plans to major in engineering.
Lingen had been on campus less than two years when the Gophers named him a captain, along with seniors Leidner, Damarius Travis and Jack Lynn.
“We definitely need [Lingen] and look forward to him stepping up and replacing some of the stuff that KJ [Maye] did for us,” coach Tracy Claeys said.
Before heading to the NFL, Williams had a dominant season, with 36 receptions for 559 yards and eight touchdowns. Spaeth won the Mackey Award in 2006, and Utecht was another first-team All-Big Ten selection who played in the NFL.
So the bar has been set high for Gophers tight ends.
“It’s great to be involved in the offense, don’t get me wrong,” Lingen said. “But my biggest concern right now is helping this team win. And if that means me catching 10 balls a game, that’s great. Catching zero balls — doesn’t matter. I’m here to help this team bring a Big Ten championship back to Minneapolis.”