Rookie linebacker gets tough for U

Todd Zolecki

Luke Braaten is the kind of football player who looks forward to the moment when he hits an opponent so hard he feels it for a week. He never quits and is always running at full speed.
The Gophers redshirt freshman made his first career start last Saturday against Purdue after spending most of his time on special teams. He registered a team-leading seven tackles and sacked Boilermakers quarterback John Reeves in the second quarter.
“It was great,” Braaten said of the sack. “It was the best feeling. It felt better than I thought it would.”
For his efforts, Gophers coach Jim Wacker named the linebacker the most valuable defensive lineman of the week.
“I think every time we start a freshman they have a great game,” Wacker said. “Maybe that’s the key. We should start four more of those guys. He played with great intensity. He’s going to be a good player.”
Wacker said the one thing that sticks out about Braaten is his intensity. The coach said anybody who works that hard in practice is going to make an impact.
It seems to come naturally to Braaten. He loves to hit people and play hard. His play on special teams this season is one reason why the Gophers coaching staff decided to start him over Lamanzer Williams. On every kickoff, Braaten was the first player down the field.
“I love doing that,” he said. “Hitting somebody full speed head on.”
Gophers outside linebackers coach Lee Fobbs said Braaten’s energy stuck out the first day of spring practice.
“It’s just a relentless attitude,” he said. “It’s an attitude that we just try to display here. Whether we’re doing drills or walk-throughs, he’s an intense guy. He’s always showing up.”
Braaten isn’t as big as Williams. Williams, a junior, outweighs Braaten by 35 pounds. But Fobbs said that doesn’t hurt Braaten on the field.
The Litchfield, Minn., native weighed about 218 pounds at the beginning of spring practice. Since then he’s added 10 more. Fobbs believes Braaten can get up to 245 pounds.
“I just go as hard as I can,” Braaten said. “Sometimes you’re smaller, but you can’t let that get into your head. You can’t fear anyone. You respect them, but you can’t fear them.”
Braaten prepared for the Purdue game just as any other. He said he had to be ready to do more things on the field and admitted he was a little nervous.
So he listened to the band `Rage Against the Machine’ before the game to help him focus. It also gave him the killer instinct he needed.
“You hit them hard enough and you’ll see stars,” he said. “That’s when you know when you’ve hit someone hard.
“I didn’t expect this at all. I mean, I’ve been working hard. I’m trying to push myself to get even further.”
On the season Braaten has 12 tackles. He will start again Saturday against No. 15 Northwestern (4-1, 2-0 in the Big Ten).
Wacker and Fobbs saw it as a necessity to get Braaten in the flow of the game. Having his intensity on the field most every defensive play, instead of just on special teams, helps Minnesota compete.
“His ability to run and his tenacious attitude was just great,” Fobbs said. “He was all over the place on Saturday. In the ballgames this year, I’ve watched him run down and play with a reckless abandon.”
Fobbs felt Braaten’s ability has always been there. But because he didn’t see much time on the field, that meant only one thing.
“We just turned him loose and let him go,” Fobbs said.