Sometimes, out of loss, motivation can sprout anew. Sometimes tragedy spurs hope.

Spencer Reeves watched the Gophers football team, often from the bench, lose for most of the 2011 season. And then, tragically, he saw teammate Gary Tinsley die suddenly from a heart problem in the offseason.

From those events, Reeves decided to live by a simple creed: Control what you can; leave what you can't.

Lesson one: Life is fleeting; make the most out of it.

"It's definitely a reality check," Reeves said of the death of Tinsley, a linebacker like Reeves. "My whole mindset has changed. ... I know how hard Gary wanted me to fight, so that's also motivation for me."

That altered mindset has put Reeves, a senior, in position to see extensive action at outside linebacker after he made only eight tackles in 10 games last season. Reeves never really made a push to start, and he warmed the bench plenty last season, dropping off in production from his sophomore year. But this is a new year and a last chance.

"I wasn't happy with our season last year, and I know no one was, but if I come out and get better, in the film room, in the weight room, we'll get better as a team," Reeves said. "And that's what I try to focus on every time I come out."

Coaches say that mature viewpoint often comes with age, and they've seen it, in Reeves' case, translate into a more ripened and precise player on the field as well. Reeves, they say, is better able to read the opponent's offense and react quickly and efficiently to many situations.

"He makes [fewer] mistakes," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "He's always been a good athlete; he's been able to tackle in space. But just with the calls and the motions, he's done a lot good. Defensively, once people motion, it may change three people. And so those are the type of things he's better at picking off, those type of adjustments to motions ... after the call is made in the huddle."

Reeves put in extra time in the offseason, studying and preparing himself for his last season. Coming in, he felt more comfortable immediately, feeling settled in a second-year system with second-year coaches. He's more focused on the game's details, he says, and technique of his position.

In fall practice, he has been getting reps with the first team, and could start alongside old friend and outside linebacker Keanon Cooper -- with whom Reeves has played since their days at Dallas Skyline High School -- and middle linebacker Mike Rallis.

The Gophers have plenty of linebacker depth, too, with senior Ryan Grant (who started four games last season), junior James Manuel, redshirt junior Aaron Hill and redshirt sophomore Lamonte Edwards also vying for time. Still, they are counting on Reeves converting his new look into sustained improvement this season.

"We certainly need him to play well," coach Jerry Kill said. "At the end of the year he started picking things up. And it's going to be real important for Spencer to play well for us. He's had a good camp to this point in time, and we certainly need him to come through."

That is something Reeves feels he's ready to do.

"I kind of understand the game plan better, understand practice tempo," he said.

And he has the attitude to match.

"Sitting on the sidelines is not what anybody wants to do," he said. "If I get better every day, my teammates get better, we have a better season."