Gophers look to spring practice to fill holes at linebacker, cornerback

Minnesota loses two starters from last season at each position.

Minnesota linebacker Keanon Cooper makes his way off the field at halftime during a game against Wisconsin Nov. 12, 2011 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Image by Mark Vancleave, Daily File Photo

Minnesota linebacker Keanon Cooper makes his way off the field at halftime during a game against Wisconsin Nov. 12, 2011 at TCF Bank Stadium.

by Nate Gotlieb

The Gophers football team was left with a sour taste in its mouth last year after a 34-31 loss to Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Minnesota graduated 14 starters from that squad and eight on the defensive side.

Three months later, with spring practice set to begin Tuesday at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex, the team will look to fill holes at linebacker and cornerback.

The Gophers lost two starters at each position, but head coach Jerry Kill said Monday at a press conference that he expects other players to step up — especially at linebacker.

“We are a little bit thin in there in the spring,” Kill said of the linebacker position, “but the people that are in there need a lot of repetition to get better.”

Minnesota graduated starters Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper, both of whom were among the team’s top- five leading tacklers.

Kill said he expects seniors Aaron Hill and James Manuel and junior Lamonte Edwards to fill the void.

Hill and Manuel both played in all 13 games last season and recorded 74 and 50 tackles, respectively. Edwards appeared in 11 games and made eight tackles.

Manuel and Edwards are both considered undersized linebackers — neither weighs more than 225 pounds — but Kill said he expects them to make plays using their speed and physicality.

“We don’t need a 230 guy that’s going to go out there and play on an inside receiver,” Kill said.

Kill said he expects newcomer Damien Wilson to compete for the starting middle linebacker job as well. Wilson, a 254-pound junior, transferred from Jones County Junior College in Mississippi and will have two years of eligibility remaining with the Gophers.

“Damien’s got to come through,” Kill said.

Wells, Jones will move to corner

With Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter graduating, the cornerback position is open for competition.

Seniors Jeremy Baltazar and Martez Shabazz, among others who have played cornerback, will compete for the starting jobs, Kill said. Former safety Derrick Wells and former wide receiver Marcus Jones will also compete for the position.

Wells appeared in all 13 games last season at safety and is the Gophers’ leading returning tackler (74 tackles). He will split time between safety and cornerback this season, Kill said Monday.

“We feel like we’ve recruited pretty well at safety,” Kill said. “That allows us to have some flexibility with [Wells].”

Jones, who played on both sides of the ball in high school, exclusively played offense and special teams in his first two seasons at Minnesota, tallying 15 receptions for 209 yards.

Gophers look for playmakers at wide receiver

While Minnesota will try to fill holes at both linebacker and cornerback, Kill said the team is also looking for improved production at wide receiver after last season’s struggles.

A.J. Barker, the Gophers’ leading receiver last season, quit the team after eight games. Although Barker is enrolled at the University this semester, he’s not on the team.

Sophomore Andre McDonald is still with the team but won’t participate in spring practice because of personal issues.

That means returning wideouts Isaac Fruechte, Derrick Engel and Devin Crawford-Tufts will be relied on to lead the receiving corps, along with former running back Devon Wright and redshirt freshman Jamel Harbison.

Harbison, whom rated a three-star recruit in the class of 2011, tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the Gophers’ season-opening win over Nevada-Las Vegas last season.

Harbison’s rehab has been slow, and he won’t be at full strength for spring practice, Kill said.

“It’s been a slower process than he wants,” Kill said. “Is he where he was when he started? No. But nobody is coming off those surgeries, except for maybe Adrian Peterson.”

Kill said that he’s hoping Crawford-Tufts, who caught 16 passes for 189 yards as a sophomore last season, will break out this season.