The Gophers owed much of their success the past two seasons to Damien Wilson and David Cobb, two cousins who roomed together and pushed each other relentlessly.
Now, Wilson and Cobb have graduated, but the Gophers have another linebacker/running back roommate tandem on the rise.
Jonathan Celestin and Rodney Smith graduated together last year from Mundy’s Mill High School in Jonesboro, Ga. Both were unheralded additions to the Gophers’ 2014 recruiting class, but each could fill a key role this fall, as the team looks to build on last season’s Jan. 1 bowl appearance.
“We’re best friends,” Celestin said. “I’ve known Rodney since I was 8. We always played football together. We would work out together — he’d push me, and I’d push him. Now we’re roommates, and we’re always hanging out. It’s great to have him here with me.”
Jonesboro is a southern suburb of Atlanta, part of an area college coaches see as fertile recruiting ground. Among the scholarship players from the Class of 2014 who signed with FBS (Division-IA) programs, 188 came from Georgia, compared to just five from Minnesota, according to Vype High School Sports.
Under coach Jerry Kill, the Gophers have been tapping into Georgia’s talent. Other Peach State natives on Minnesota’s roster include cornerback Jalen Myrick, safety Daletavious McGhee, and another incoming running back recruit, Shannon Brooks.
Celestin played in 11 games for the Gophers last season as a true freshman and recorded 16 tackles, including three for a loss. He’s battling De’Vondre Campbell for the starting job at outside linebacker this spring, and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is determined to keep both of them in the mix.
Smith redshirted last fall, but he’s competing with Rodrick Williams, Berkley Edwards and Jeff Jones for the carries that went to Cobb. The Gophers restrict redshirt freshmen from talking to the media, but others have been raving about Smith for months.
“He’s just so natural when he gets that ball in his hands,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said before spring camp.
Smith rushed for 2,201 yards as a senior for Mundy’s Mill, where his father is the offensive coordinator. Celestin had 139 tackles, as the Tigers overcame an 0-4 start to go 8-5, advancing to the Class 5A quarterfinals in the best season in school history.
“Once we lost those first four, Rodney and Jonathan just took it upon themselves that we’re not losing any more,” said Mundy’s Mill coach Gregory Manior. “Those two guys took charge of the team.”
Smith had an offer from Southern Miss and a few other schools, but none besides Minnesota from a Power Five conference. Celestin’s other two notable offers came from Western Carolina and Valdosta State.
The Gophers had Smith on their radar for a while, but Celestin had converted from safety to linebacker his senior year and was still undersized at under 200 pounds. Celestin added some weight and started getting more attention after standing out at the Florida-Georgia High School All-Star Game.
“You take kids who have the athletic ability to play in the Big Ten, and you roll the dice on whether they can gain the weight and get the size,” Claeys said. “We were asking [Celestin], ‘Hey, how big is Grandpa? How big are people in your family?’
“You ask all those questions on guys who are just a little bit smaller coming out of high school, and you project that they’ll grow a little bit.”
Now, Celestin has bulked up to 6-1, 222 pounds.
“I started calling him ‘Thumper’ when he first got here last year,” Claeys said. “He’ll get after you, and he likes football. He’s gotten a lot better, more comfortable with the scheme.”
Asked about being called “Thumper,” Celestin had to smile.
“I love that nickname as a linebacker,” he said. “People know I’m a hard hitter.”
And over the next few seasons, Gophers fans could hear a lot more about both of these roommates.