– Thomas Barber didn’t garner the crowds at Big Ten media days Monday that some higher-profile conference standouts did, but the Gophers linebacker is being noticed nonetheless.

Barber was one of 51 players named to the Butkus Award watch list, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker. The junior from Plymouth led the Gophers with 115 tackles last year, including a Big Ten-best 76 solo stops. Last week, he was named to the Bednarik Award watch list, which goes to the nation’s top defensive player.

Barber credited his teammates for the recognition.

“It’s special to be put up there to represent Minnesota,’’ he said. “You have to recognize Big Steve [Steven Richardson] and Merrick [Jackson] and Stelts [Andrew Stelter]. Without those defensive linemen, I wouldn’t have been able to shoot the gaps and make big plays.’’

Tribute to Sparano

In his opening statement of his news conference, Gophers coach P.J. Fleck gave a tribute to Vikings offensive line coach Tony Sparano, who died Sunday.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the entire Sparano family,’’ Fleck said. “Minnesota is a very tight-knit group, it’s a tight state. Coach Sparano was an incredible coach and an incredible person.

“But the one thing I want to make sure that everybody understands is over the course of the last 24 hours I haven’t heard anybody share any stories about a technique or a fundamental or what type of offensive line coach he was,’’ Fleck added. “All we continue to hear is what type of person and the impact he made on so many lives.’’

Brooks return possible

In March, senior running back Shannon Brooks suffered what appeared to be a season-ending lower leg injury during the final days of winter conditioning. But with the new NCAA rule that allows players to participate in four games without losing a season of eligibility, Brooks might be able to return late this season.

Gophers running back Rodney Smith welcomed the news.

“That definitely excites me,’’ Smith said. “He’s been my running mate since I’ve been playing here.’’

Preseason honorees named

The Big Ten announced its preseason all-league honorees. Defending champion Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa and running back J.K. Dobbins made the East list, along with Penn State QB Trace McSorley, Michigan defensive lineman Rashan Gary and Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke. Defending West champion Wisconsin had linebacker T.J. Edwards and running back Jonathan Taylor. Joining them on the West list are Iowa tight end Noah Fant, Nebraska wide receiver Stanley Morgan Jr. and Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher.