OK, let's not get too far ahead of ourselves here. Fact of the matter is that the University of Minnesota is light years away from churning out star linebackers like Penn State has for the better part of a century.
I certainly don't see Jack Ham, Shane Conlan, and Lavar Arrington on the current Gophers linebacking depth chart, but for the first time in a very long time, there's reason to be optimistic about the second tier of the Gophers defense.
The Gophers haven't had a linebacker drafted into the NFL since Craig Sauer was drafted in the sixth round by the Atlanta Falcons in 1996. That's unilkely to change this year.
Gopher senior linebackers Lee Campbell, Nate Triplett, and Simoni Lawrence formed the best Gopher linebacking corps in a long time, but it's highly unlikely any of them will hear their name called in late April. There's an outside chance all three players could end up on NFL practice squads, but right now, it seems they will be earning their paychecks off the field.
Former head coach Glen Mason excelled in finding and evaluating offensive talent. His offensive lines were among the best in the Big Ten, year in and year out. He put a fair number of running backs in the NFL. Offensive linemen and tight ends, too.
Defensive players? Not so much. A couple of defensive linemen, a couple of defensive backs, and no linebackers. Coach Mason didn't send one linebacker to the NFL in 10 seasons.
Mason's teams could score, there's no disputing that. Problem was they could never stop anyone, especially when the chips are on the line. Could be that the perpetual lack of talent at linebacker had a lot to do with that.
I'm a firm believer in giving credit where credit is due. Tim Brewster hasn't done a lot during his tenure to gain a lot of respect from fans or the media, but I'm firmly onboard with what he's done with his defenses, specifically his linebackers.
One of his first "big" changes after taking over was moving Lee Campbell from DE to MLB. That move worked out beautifully. Campbell developed into a good Big Ten linbacker and a defensive leader.
Now that Campbell and the other senior linebackers are moving on, there's reason for concern. It will hurt the team to lose three experienced leaders. The good news is the cupboard is far from bare.
Keanon Cooper, Spencer Reeves, Gary Tinsley, and Sam Maresh give the Gophers four physical, athletic linebackers. I certainly can't remember the last time there was that much talent and potential in the middle of the Gopher defense.
Cooper and Reeves came to the Gophers together from Texas high school powerhouse, Dallas Skyline High School, along with offensive playmakers Troy Stoudemire and DaJon McKnight.
Cooper made his mark with the team late last season. His playing time increased as the season went on, seeing the field both on special teams and situationally with the first team defense.
If you believe everything Tim Brewster says (and I don't), Cooper told Coach Brewster he would block a punt seconds before trotting onto the field and steamrolling his man before sending an Illinois punt backwards, resulting in a Gopher touchdown. Too bad that effort wasn't enough to secure a win.
Cooper is a playmaker, plain and simple. He's not the biggst linebacker you'll see, but he's quick and has a nose for the ball. He'll be a star before his time in Minneapolis is done.
Cooper's Skyline teammate, Spencer Reeves, gives the Gophers another solid option. Reeves is a little bigger than Cooper, but he moves well from sideline to sideline and is a sure tackler in the open field.
Junior Gary Tinsley gives Minnesota a physical presence at linebacker. The junior from Florida was pressed into duty during 2009's Big Ten finale at Iowa when Nate Triplett was injured. Tinsley was all over the field, racking up 10 tackles and a sack. If he can limit his late-night antics where he chooses to wield a two-by-four, he'll provide the experience and stability that the defense is going to need.
Lastly, I can't talk about the future of the Gopher defense without mentioning Sam Maresh. The native Minnesotan is the poster child for perserverance. Perhaps Coach Brewster's most heralded in-state recruit to date, Maresh has endured his share of problems.
Maresh came to the Gophers as a standout middle linebacker, with ideal size at 6'3" and 247 lbs. He was expected to contrbute to the program immediately. It didn't work out that way.
A physical before his freshman season revealed a heart defect. There was serious doubt if Maresh would survive, much less play football. After successful surgery and rehabilitation, Maresh was given a clean bill of health and cleared to play football.
A redshirt season in 2009 gave Maresh more time to heal and work himself back into playing shape. He'll see his first action in 2010 and could be a key piece for the resurgant Gopher defense.
It's possible none of these young linebackers are able to take the next step to the NFL. It's also not crazy to think that all four could someday be earning NFL paychecks.
One thing is clear. The potential is there and I expect the drought of Gopher linebackers in the NFL to end sooner rather than later.
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