Gophers: Linebacker corps remains a work in progress

Published 9:15 am Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Even in a 22-point loss to Michigan last week, Gophers coach Jerry Kill saw improvement from his linebackers.

But he needs to see a lot more.

A unit that was supposed to be the strength of the University of Minnesota defense has performed below expectations because of injuries and ineffectiveness, but Kill and his players don’t want to blame injuries for the inconsistency.

Email newsletter signup

“You can’t really lean on that as an excuse,” senior Mike Rallis said.

“You know, I thought our (linebacker) play on Saturday was much better than the week before,” Kill said during his news conference Tuesday. “I think we’ve still got to be more physical at the point of attack and maybe take a better angle here and there.”

The Gophers (5-4, 1-4 Big Ten), who play at Illinois (2-7, 0-5) on Saturday, have allowed too many opponents to exploit the second level of their defense.

Becoming bowl eligible with another victory in the next two games will be difficult if Illinois and Nebraska can get past Minnesota’s linebackers and make big plays in the open field.

“The spread offense definitely causes some problems, where you really have to play assignment football,” Rallis said. “Everyone has an assigned guy they need to take. If one guy messes that up on the defense, they can break a long one.”

Rallis and fellow senior Keanon Cooper have shown strong leadership this year, but they have not been healthy for most of the season. Rallis had to sit out the second half of the Purdue game two weeks ago because of a bad ankle. Backups James Manuel and Lamonte Edwards were hampered by hamstring issues in that game.

“You play on defense, you play linebacker, that’s part of that position,” Kill said. “You’re going to be banged up, and it’s a physical position.”

Minnesota and Purdue are the only two Big Ten teams with no linebacker among the top 30 tacklers in the league.

Rallis ranks 38th in the conference with 47 total tackles. Cooper and junior Aaron Hill are tied for 48th with 43 tackles each

Last season, the Gophers’ linebackers combined for 7-1/2 sacks and 21 tackles for loss. This season, they have just a half-sack and 10-1/2 tackles for loss.

“I’m proud of the way we’ve prepared,” Rallis said. “It’s really important to everybody. We play hard every Saturday; there’s no doubt about that. We just need to be more consistent, along with everyone on the team.”

Rallis, Cooper and Hill have been the starting linebackers for every game except against New Hampshire and Northwestern. But former Florida transfer Brendan Beal, who missed last season because of a knee injury, has gotten more playing time because of injuries. Manuel, a former safety, and Edwards, a former running back, are two of the most athletic players at the position, but they need more time to understand the fundamentals.

Kill pointed out that Manuel missed a chance at a “big sack” last week when Michigan receiver-turned-quarterback Devin Gardner sidestepped him because he overran the play. Gardner eventually connected on a 45-yard touchdown pass on third and 17 for the Wolverines’ first touchdown.

“It’s definitely frustrating sometimes when you know what to do, and then sometimes you just don’t get the job done,” Manuel said. “I can’t speak for Lamonte, but personally, I feel like I’m done with that (new position adjustment) stage. I feel like it’s time to take the next step to excel and to get to recognizing formations and offensive linemen. We all want to get it going and start making more plays.”