Gophers football coaches believe they’ve seen plenty of progress in recent weeks, but heading into Saturday’s spring game, they still have big questions at linebacker. That’s a position where incoming recruits could make an impact this fall.
“We’ve been inconsistent at times, but it’s definitely going in the right direction,” Gophers linebacker coach Bill Miller said. “I like our group. I think that we’ve got a chance to have a good linebacker corps. Some of them may not be here yet, but I do feel that these guys have learned.”
Outside linebacker Aaron Hill is the only returning starter in the group. As a junior, he made 74 tackles, tying him for third on the team.
“Aaron’s had a pretty consistent spring,” Miller said.
At middle linebacker, the Gophers need to replace outgoing senior Mike Rallis. The two candidates are redshirt freshman Jack Lynn and junior college transfer Damien Wilson.
Lynn has gotten most of the reps with the first-team defense this spring, but Wilson has made a good impression after making 122 tackles last year for Jones County (Miss.) Community College.
“What’s surprised me the most is Damien can play well in space,” Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. “I mean he did in junior college because that’s all he did, and I just didn’t know how that would translate.”
Miller was the defensive coordinator at Miami when Ray Lewis was the Hurricanes’ middle linebacker, so his standards are understandably high. How have Wilson and Lynn looked to Miller?
“It’s been up and down with both of them,” he said. “They’re both new guys here that are learning the system. My experience has been that after the spring, they go through the summer, and I don’t know if it’s absorbed or what, but there’s a big jump when they really get comfortable with it.”
So Hill’s spot, and the middle spot aren’t the main concern. It’s the other linebacker spot where the Gophers still need help. Senior James Manuel, a converted safety, has been playing there with the first-team defense.
“He needs to be more consistent,” Miller said. “He’s one of those that I’m referring to.”
And the same goes for Lamonte Edwards, a converted running back from Woodbury.
“He’s made some [plays], and he hasn’t made some,” Miller said. “And that’s that consistency part we’re talking about.”
The Gophers knew they had holes, so they signed five linebackers in this year’s recruiting class. Besides Wilson, the group includes Wayzata’s Chris Wipson, who likely will redshirt as he recovers from major knee surgery.
Another signee, Rayfield Dixon (from Loxahatchee, Fla.) might need a year to bulk up. He is 6-3, 205 pounds.
But the two linebacker recruits to watch this fall are De’Niro Laster and De’Vondre Campbell.
The 6-4, 230-pound Laster comes from Cleveland Heights High School in Ohio.
“De’Niro — I’m interested to see, but he is a freshman,” Claeys said.
The 6-5, 225-pound Campbell was a high school sprinter in Fort Myers, Fla. He signed out of Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College after de-committing from Kansas State, but wasn’t able to transfer in time for spring practice.
Claeys said Campbell is an “an awfully good junior college linebacker. I wish he was here in the spring. It didn’t work out that way, but if he has a good summer and shows he can play, then he will. And if that happens, our depth just got a lot better.”