Judging by the schools that showed interest, Mariano Sori-Marin appeared bound for the Ivy League. The linebacker from Providence Catholic High School in New Lenox, Ill., caught the attention of Brown, Cornell, Harvard, Penn and Yale in 2017, and his cerebral approach looked like a good fit with any of those schools.

“I like studying,” Sori-Marin said. “People think of me as a little bit of a nerd sometimes in academics, and that translates over to football.”

One person’s nerd is another person’s student of the game, and that’s what Gophers coach P.J. Fleck and his staff found when they recruited Sori-Marin. Three years later, the emerging leader will play a key role for a Minnesota defense hit hard by graduation.

“We expect big things out of him, and I know he expects big things out of himself,” said Fleck, whose 21st-ranked Gophers open their coronavirus-delayed season Saturday night against No. 18 Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium. “If there’s one person that’s going to put more pressure on himself than me, it’s going to be Mariano.”

With three-year starter Thomas Barber graduated and Kamal Martin off to the Green Bay Packers, the Gophers must replace a duo that combined for 429 tackles over the past three seasons. Sori-Marin, a 6-3, 245-pound junior, started seven games last year and showed the versatility to play the Mike (middle), Will (weakside) and Sam (strongside) positions.

“Learning from guys like Thomas Barber and Kamal, who were exceptional students of the game — constantly doing film study, teaching me things — I was able to take that and help accelerate my game,” said Sori-Marin, whose 42 tackles are most among any returning Gophers linebacker.

The 2019 season was a breakthrough for the Gophers, who went 11-2 and finished No. 10 in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll. Early on, there were some bumps — mainly the grit-your-teeth nonconference victories over South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern. Sori-Marin made his first collegiate start against the Jackrabbits and made some mistakes. Like the student he is, he used it as a learning experience.

“I was able to take the results of that and respond to that,” said Sori-Marin, who had six tackles against Georgia Southern and a career-high eight against Maryland. “Obviously, there were some mistakes, but I didn’t let those happen again.”

Combining instincts, curiosity

That Sori-Marin is improving through hard work doesn’t surprise his high school coach, Mark Coglianese.

“He’s a very instinctive player, but he’s also someone else that puts in all the time, whether it be watching film, paying attention on the field, always alert and always asking questions,” Coglianese said. “He’s always wanting to get better.”

At Providence Catholic, Sori-Marin made an impression on Coglianese as a freshman when he was called up to the varsity on a state championship team.

“Mariano was playing scout-team receiver and was making catches on us and making plays all over,” Coglianese said. “Right then we knew he was going to be something special.”

One problem: Sori-Marin missed most of his sophomore and junior seasons because of injuries to first his left collarbone, then his right collarbone. That limited his exposure to college recruiters.

“It’s a credit to him and Minnesota that people found out what kind of player he was gonna be,” Coglianese said.

Coglianese coached former Notre Dame and Vikings linebacker Pete Bercich at Providence Catholic, and he sees some parallels.

“Mariano’s probably a little bit faster and a little bit quicker, but, oh, when Pete would hit you, it was like a bulldozer,” he said. “Pete was very smart and very intellectual, and both guys are very similar.”

Leadership on, off the field

Sori-Marin, who scored a 29 on his ACT, was intrigued by the Ivy League schools that recruited him but held out hope for a higher level of football.

“When the University of Minnesota came to talk to me, it was kind of a shift,” he said. “I knew what I was capable of doing.”

He said he felt that with Gophers football and Minnesota, he found a great fit. “We have the combination here of phenomenal sports … as well as one of the best academic schools in the country with the Carlson School of Management,” the finance major said.

Fleck pointed to Sori-Marin’s passion.

“He’s one of the most intelligent, if not the most intelligent player we have on our football team,” Fleck said. “Not only that, I would rank him in the top three of who loves football the most. If you take a really smart player — who are usually better players — and match that with love for football, that’s what you see in his style of play.”

Along with an expanded role on the field, Sori-Marin has become a leader. He honed those skills this spring and summer by organizing video calls when players and coaches couldn’t congregate.

“As different as it’s been, it’s actually helped improve my leadership,” he said. “I’m working with a lot of young guys on defense, and I’m still a young guy. … [But] we’re really looking forward to showing what we’re capable of, and we know what we’re capable of.”