Depth chart concerns push U linebackers

A funny thing happened to Minnesota football’s linebacker coach Greg Hudson during the Gophers’ spring camp. Rather than being dazzled by the three returning starters, it was three different faces on the field impressing at the position.

Redshirt freshmen Terrance Campbell and Junior Eugene along with junior Ben West lifted more than a few eyebrows before the team broke for the summer. So much that Hudson and head coach Glen Mason put the three ahead of Phil Archer, Justin Fraley and Bradley Vance on the preseason depth chart.

The three returning starters combined to make 25 percent of Minnesota’s 936 tackles last season. West made 20 tackles total, 14 of which came at Iowa when he started after Archer suffered an ankle injury.

“I guess I was a little surprised (at the depth chart) but starting is what you strive to do all along so I wasn’t shocked,” said West, the strongest of all linebackers, bench pressing 385 pounds. “I need to get faster, though, if I’m going to keep this. I’m going to keep working at it, and hopefully the coaches will notice.”

Like all positions, the linebacker spots are granted on a performance basis. But did two redshirt freshmen and a bench player really outshine all three returning starters?

“Competition is the best motivator there is,” Hudson said. “In this case, we had three guys who stepped up their game and created this competition. It happened in a combination of areas: conditioning, strength, speed attitude, focus, all these. It wasn’t just one. It came down to in April, these guys were just playing better football.”

The competition is a friendly one. The six players have a mutual understanding about the decision. All have acknowledged that a preseason depth chart is not the end-all and be-all of a grueling 12-game season and the starting nods are still up for grabs. They’re training and working out together, giving the next guy that added push.

Vance, a Sporting News Freshman All-American last season, was not the least bit surprised about temporarily losing his starting spot.

“I surely did not have a good spring,” he said. “I knew it was coming. In football it’s all about what you have done lately rather than what have you done in the past. I didn’t step up, so I got my spot taken away.”

With less than a week until the season opener against Southwest Texas State, Mason said as of now the depth chart has not changed but he and the assistant coaches will sit down this week to make any necessary changes. Hudson knows it will be a hard decision but a welcomed one.

“It’s going to be a photo finish,” he said. “I’m lucky to have six or seven guys competing and making my life difficult. If this was easy, you don’t have everyone doing their jobs.”

Barber on preseason list

Sophomore running back Marion Barber III is one of 42 preseason candidates for the 2002 Doak Walker Award. The award is given annually to college football’s top running back. Barber is one of only six sophomores on the list that includes 24 seniors and 12 juniors.

Eight semifinalists will be announced Nov. 19, with the award handed out Dec. 12.

Watch this, part duex

Four Minnesota players have been named to the Rotary Gridiron Classic watch list. Receivers Antoine Burns and Jermaine Mays, cornerback Mike Lehan, and punter Preston Gruening were named to the list last week.

The annual Classic is a game pitting the top players from around the nation against those from Florida and will be played Jan. 25.

Brian Stensaas covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]