Breaking down the Gophers LBs: Mike Rallis adapting to new role at MLB
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Each Tuesday and Thursday until the Gophers football team opens fall camp on Aug. 4, 1500ESPN.com's Nate Sandell breaks down the "U" roster position-by-position, with input from conversations with coach Jerry Kill, as well as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
On the roster
• Keanon Cooper -- RS Senior, 6-foot, 220, Dallas.
• Mike Rallis -- RS Senior, 6-2, 245, Edina, Minn.
• Spencer Reeves -- Senior, 6-2, 230, Dallas, Texas
• Aaron Hill -- RS Junior, 6-2, 225, St. Charles, Mo.
• James Manuel -- Junior, 6-2, 215, Indianapolis, Ind.
• Lamonte Edwards -- RS Sophomore, 6-2, 210, Woodbury, Minn.
• Ryan Grant -- RS Senior, 6-2, 230, Eden Prairie, Minn.
• Brendan Beal -- RS Junior, 6-3, 250, Bangor, Pa.
• Joey Balthazor -- RS Junior, 6-3, 235, Hartland, Wis.
• Jephte Matilus -- RS Freshman, 6-1, 230, Delray Beach, Fla
• Peter Westerhaus -- RS Freshman, 6-3, 230, Chanhassen, Minn.
• Dominic Schultz -- RS Freshman, 6-1, 215, Port Huron, Mich.
• Quinn Bauducco -- RS Freshman, 6-3, 225, Moorpark, Calif.
• Jack Lynn -- Freshman, 6-3, 210, Lake Zurich, Ill.
• Nick Rallis -- Freshman, 5-11, 220, Edina, Minn.
• Gary Tinsley -- As the lone senior at linebacker last season, Tinsley was the unit's captain and go-to playmaker. After posting a team-high 90 tackles in 2010, Tinsley finished with 87 in his senior season, along with four sacks. The "U" football program continues to mourn the loss of Tinsley, who died suddenly of heart failure on April 6. The Gophers will honor Tinsley this season by wearing a patch on their jerseys with his No. 51 emblazoned on it. A wall-size picture of Tinsley now stands at the entrance of the Gophers locker room at the team's practice facility.
Linebacker is the rare position on the Gophers roster anchored by a core of upperclassmen. The group returns four seniors -- Cooper, Mike Rallis, Reeves and Grant -- who have played in at least 10 games in each of the last two seasons.
Rallis and Cooper top the bunch, entering their third season as starters. They contributed a combined 160 tackles in 2011, ranking third and fourth on the team, respectively. It is likely the Gophers will field seniors in all three starting spots when they open the season on Aug. 30 at UNLV, with Reeves projected as the No. 3.
But despite the layer of experience, a lack of solidified depth remains a concern. Injuries to either Cooper or Rallis at any point could dramatically alter the unit's outlook. The Gophers will need consistency and increased production from guys such as Manuel, Edwards and Hill to bolster what could be the strongest portion of a defense that is trying to shed its recent reputation as one of the Big Ten's worst. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys will have the blessing of quality competition if the unit can make it through fall camp healthy, keeping with his desire to have a six to eight-man rotation able to play when needed.
With Tinsley graduated, depth at middle linebacker was one of Claeys' primary personnel concerns heading into the offseason. The Gophers opted to shift Rallis in from his post on the outside to the middle where he would be required to be the vocal point man on defense. The move has had its desired effect. After a short adjustment period, Rallis has transitioned to his new role with ease.
"He's a better player inside the box and I think it's a good fit for him," coach Jerry Kill said during an interview with 1500ESPN.com in June. "He can use leader skills and also his physical skills inside. I just think it's a good move for him and a good move for our defensive football team."
A fifth-year senior who has been a defensive mainstay for the past two seasons, Rallis makes up for his shortcomings in sheer athleticism with a distinct physical edge and acute field vision. In an attempt to better fit the speed and build required of the position, the 6-foot-2 Rallis used an upgraded strength and conditioning routine in the winter months to put on 15 pounds. Ensuring Rallis is comfortable is essential to the Gophers' pursuit of consistency on defense.
Until Beal proves he's healthy, Hill -- who has been primarily used on the outside -- could be the No. 2 option in the middle. Held out of the first three games of 2011 with a hamstring injury, Hill returned to log 32 tackles, one sack and two starts in the final nine games. Hill has evolved from a walk-on in 2009 into a reliable backup option, with the potential to eventually take on a regular starting role.
Beal's status is still a gigantic question mark. A pair of ACL injuries to the same knee has prevented the University of Florida transfer and once highly touted recruit's career from truly getting underway. Beal was one week away last fall from finally playing in his first collegiate game when he suffered a repeat of his ACL tear from 2008. The Gophers have been cautious with Beal's rehab to make sure he isn't brought back too soon. Held out of spring practice, the redshirt junior has diligently worked through the recovery process, maintaining his athletic frame. Clayes said he has been told by the team's training staff that Beal can be ready to go at the start of the year, but how much of an impact, if any, Beal will have this season is a mystery.
Like Rallis in the middle, Cooper is cemented in a starting role at outside linebacker. Cooper appeared in all 12 games (nine starts) last season and picked up a career-high 77 tackles (34 solo) despite a wrist injury that bothered him for the majority of the year. Pain in the wrist persisted into the offseason and Cooper eventually underwent surgery. Limited to only various position drills in the spring, Cooper is expected to be fully healthy when camp opens -- a development Claeys believes will provide a needed boost.
"I don't think people have seen how truly good of a football player he is because of that (wrist)," Claeys said.
Opposite Cooper on the outside, Reeves is making a bid for an abrupt upturn in playing time. Reeves was slow to adapt to Claeys' defensive system in 2011 (eight tackles in 10 games), but he showed in the spring a better understanding of what was being asked of him. Barring a setback, Reeves is tracking as a Day 1 starter.
The Gophers will be looking for Edwards and Manuel to be key backups, neither of whom has played a full season at linebacker.
Switched over from running back three weeks into the 2011 season, Edwards spent the year learning the position by trial-and-error. Though the adjustment was rocky at times, he had settled in by spring and expressed a growing comfort with the ins and outs of the defense. Edwards' quickness and compact strength matches what Claeys is looking for. The Gophers made the move early enough that Edwards could be one of the team's upper-tier linebackers by 2013 or 2014.
Manuel's transition to linebacker hasn't been as dramatic as Edwards', but the shift down from safety has still taken some time to get used to, the Gophers approached Manuel about making the switch soon after the season concluded in another bid to add speed and depth at linebacker. Manuel, who has appeared in all 24 games since he arrived in 2010, impressed Claeys in the spring by how rapidly he developed. Manuel will have to prove that he can be a reliable option on the weak side and upgrade from his 11-tackle output last season.
Grant and Balthazor round out the main eight or nine options at linebacker. Grant, the grandson of former Minnesota Vikings head coach Bud Grant, has been used mainly as a role player in his first three seasons. That shouldn't change this year. He gives the Gophers another needed source of senior leadership on defense. Redshirt freshmen Jephte Matilus, Peter Westerhaus and Schultz all logged practice time with the second team defense and on special teams in the spring, but their impact is expected to minimal unless injuries force changes.
As of Tuesday, Claeys had yet to be informed if Bauducco would be cleared to practice in the fall. Bauducco underwent offseason back surgery and was held out the entirety of spring practice. Incoming freshmen Jack Lynn, who has already earned high favor within the coaching staff, and Nick Rallis -- Mike Rallis' younger brother -- are probable redshirt candidates.
Tracy Claeys' take on ... Brendan Beal
"I'm hoping we can find some role to define for him that will help us out ... You have an upperclassmen there that at one time was a very good player. Everybody heals different. That's what is probably the most frustrating part right now and that's not towards him or the trainers or anything. At the same time, we've told him to be slow with the rehab and do it right, because he is an experienced player. He does pick up the game pretty good. We're all excited to see how far he's come and to see if he can help us out. It would give us an opportunity to redshirt somebody else and let them develop before we have to throw them into the fire."
This is still a unit that was part of a defense that severely struggled to stop the run in 2011 (186.4 yards per game), but the Gophers have the players at linebacker for it to be the bright spot on the defensive side. Rallis is a sound weapon at middle linebacker and is again in position to finish as one of the team's leading tacklers. Keeping the group healthy from top to bottom is key. Cooper will be watched intently in fall camp to see how he performs in contact now that his wrist has healed. Getting dependable production out of Manuel and Edwards is critical if the Gophers hope to maintain some semblance of depth.Position-by-position series recap
Position-by-position series recap
Day 1: Quarterbacks -- MarQueis Gray headed for a 'breakout year?'
Day 2: Running backs -- James Gillum makes bid for top spot
Day 3: Wide receivers -- Search is on for a go-to threat
Day 4: Tight ends -- Is John Rabe the offense's 'secret weapon?'
Day 5: Offensive line -- Ed Olson set to lead developing group
Day 6: Defensive line -- Ra'Shede Hageman crucial to unit's success