Linebacker continuity key at spring game

by Matt Perkins

Minnesota’s football team had an adrenaline boost on the defensive side of the ball last season when they promoted defensive backs coach David Lockwood to defensive coordinator.

But Lockwood’s intensity level on the sidelines didn’t show up in on-field results.

Minnesota was ranked fifth in the Big Ten in yards allowed, despite surrendering 407.6 yards per game, just a 1.1 yard improvement from the team’s 2004 mark.

So when the Gophers take the field Saturday for their annual spring game at the Metrodome, scheduled to kick off at 11 a.m., fans will be looking to preview the team’s 2006 defensive group.

Specifically, fans will be watching the Gophers’ linebacker corps.

“When you look at it you have guys who have been playing with each other for a year now in (John) Shevlin, (Mike) Sherels and (Mario) Reese,” Lockwood said. “And with the off-season summer conditioning and film review, you hope those guys can come even more together and gel.”

Reese and Sherels will have that opportunity Saturday when they take the field against the Gophers’ new offense, but Shevlin, who is sidelined because of offseason shoulder surgery, will not be by their side.

It is unknown when Shevlin, who was not available for comment, will return to action.

But Sherels and Reese said when Shevlin does come back, they’ll be that much closer to solving some of the team’s defensive problems.

“The biggest thing is experience,” Reese said. “We were a bit inexperienced last season, but now that we’ve been looking at film and playing together, we can get a feel for what we can do on the field.”

Heading into last year’s spring football game, Minnesota was uncertain who would be supporting senior linebacker Kyle McKenzie.

It was Shevlin and Sherels starting alongside McKenzie early in the season, before Reese became a steady starter when Sherels went down with an injury.

Although coach Glen Mason hasn’t etched anyone in as a starter just yet, it looks as if Sherels, Shevlin and Reese will be teaming up this season.

“It’s really given us an upper hand already working together last year,” Sherels said. “The communication is already there so we can start moving away from the basic defenses we used last year.

“We can use that chemistry and do some different things with it, do some more stunts and more man coverage. I just think that the maturity and communication levels are up so we can do a lot more.”

Both Sherels and Reese said the communication was there last year, but not to the extent it has been this sping.

And not nearly where it could be come fall.

“You’d like to see us get to the point where we’re communicating every last detail,” Sherels said. “We’ll do that verbally for now, so that eventually those reads become second nature.”