The Minnesota Golden Gophers have rebuilt their linebacker corps after losing key components to their defense each of the last few seasons. In 2014, the squad will feature a pair of junior college transfers from last year’s recruiting class.
Senior Damien Wilson and redshirt junior De’Vondre Campbell came to Minnesota from different colleges and have different skill sets. Wilson is a big, thick downhill tackler. He was second in tackles on the team last season and is likely a future NFL player. Campbell is taller, lankier and more athletic, but does not have the physicality or aggressiveness that Wilson possesses. He added strength and good bulk this offseason and appears ready to become a leader for the Gophers’ defense.
They are expected to be joined in the starting lineup by redshirt sophomore Jack Lynn. He nearly beat out Wilson for the starting middle linebacker position last season, but served as one of the top reserve linebackers. He will likely serve as the top backup middle linebacker along with starting on the strong side.
A pair of Minnesotans are among the top competitors for the two outside linebacker spots. Wayzata native Chris Wipson had a good spring after redshirting as a true freshman last season. He suffered a knee injury early in his final high school season. Edina native Nick Rallis played mostly special teams as a redshirt freshman last season. He is a little shorter than his brother, former star Gopher linebacker Mike, but has skills to be just as good.
The other top candidate to start is redshirt freshman De’Niro Laster. He is big (6-4, 230) and athletic - he was a wide receiver on offense in high school. He, like Wipson, had a very good spring and will make an impact on defense or special teams, or both.
Cody Poock, a junior college transfer in this season’s recruiting class, suffered a torn ACL during spring practices and said he was ahead in his rehab this summer. Whether he redshirts or plays this season likely will not be decided until October. He was playing with the first team defense with Wilson and Campbell when the injury occurred.
The rest of the linebackers are headlined by true freshman Everett Williams. He was not a highly recruited prospect, but was considered by many recruiting services as a sleeper. He already possesses good Big Ten size (listed at 6-1, 230 on the team’s website).
Redshirt freshman Ray Dixon will likely make an impact on special teams and will likely get some playing time as a reserve on defense. Like Dixon, redshirt sophomore Cedric Dicke and redshirt junior Dominic Schultz will likely get most of their playing time on special teams. Also on the roster is true freshman Jonathan Celestin. Like Williams, he was not a highly recruited prospect. He will likely redshirt this season.
The final linebacker on the roster is Peter Westerhaus, a redshirt junior from Chanhassen. However, he will no longer play football after being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis.
Projected Depth Chart
First Team - 26 De’Vondre Campbell, RS JR, Fort Myers, Fla. (Hutchinson Community College); 50 Jack Lynn, RS SO, Lake Zurich, Ill. (Lake Zurich High School); 5 Damien Wilson, SR, Gloster, Miss. (Jones County Community College)
Second Team - 1 De’Niro Laster, RS FR, Cleveland Heights, Ohio (Cleveland Heights High School); 56 Nick Rallis, RS SO, Edina, Minn. (Edina High School); 30 Chris Wipson, RS FR, Plymouth, Minn. (Wayzata High School)
Third Team - 59 Ray Dixon, RS FR, Loxahatchee, Fla. (Seminole Ridge High School); 12 Cody Poock, SO, Okoboji, Iowa (Iowa Western Community College); 57 Everett Williams, FR, Mansfield, Texas (Legacy High School)
Fourth Team - 13 Jonathan Celestin, FR, Jonesboro, Ga. (Mundy’s Mill High School); 19 Cedric Dicke, RS SO, Cannon Falls, Minn. (Cannon Falls High School); 35 Dominic Schultz, RS JR, Port Huron, Mich. (Port Huron High School)
The Rest of the Division
Illinois Fighting Illini - The Illini return two of their three starting linebackers from last season.
Iowa Hawkeyes - The Hawkeyes return none of their three starting linebackers from last season.
Nebraska Cornhuskers - The Cornhuskers return all three of their starting linebackers from last season.
Northwestern Wildcats - The Wildcats return two of their three starting linebackers from last season.
Purdue Boilermakers - The Boilermakers return both of their starting linebackers from last season.
Wisconsin Badgers - The Badgers return none of their four starting linebackers from last season.