Linebackers at the forefront for Minnesota’s depleted defense

After NFL departures, expelled players and transfers, the Gophers’ defense success rests on the shoulders of the linebackers, with a heavy-hearted Jonathan Celestin leading the way.

Gophers linebacker Kamal Martin runs into the end zone for the Gophers during their game against Purdue at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 5, 2016.

Maddy Fox

Gophers linebacker Kamal Martin runs into the end zone for the Gophers during their game against Purdue at TCF Bank Stadium on Nov. 5, 2016.

Drew Cove

Looking to fix one of its biggest weaknesses, the Gophers football team turned to one of its strengths: the linebackers. 

Two key defensive backs left the team after they were expelled and a starting defensive lineman transferred, which forced the Gophers to switch sophomore Carter Coughlin from his post as linebacker to defensive end. 

Minnesota returns 10 linebackers, not including Coughlin, with Jonathan Celestin and Cody Poock as the only seniors. Blake Cashman, a former walk-on, is coming off a strong year and Kamal Martin earned playing time his freshman season.

Head coach P.J. Fleck said the team is deep at linebacker, which has led to different defensive packages.  

“We’re going to look more like a 3-4, but we are a 4-3 team,” Fleck said. “You can be incredibly creative.”

The rest of the defense is coming into the season with just a few key players. 

Defensive lineman Steven Richardson led the team in tackles for loss and returns to the team this season, but one of his counterparts, Gaelin Elmore, transferred. 

The defensive backs saw turnover, with two players, Damarius Travis and Jalen Myrick, departing to the NFL, while Ray Buford and KiAnte Hardin left after they were expelled for an alleged sexual assault that roiled the football program. 

The linebackers can use their experience and success in recent years to build up the team, starting Thursday with the season opener against Buffalo.

Waiting to lead  

Linebackers Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis both graduated last season, and Celestin had a chance to become a better leader under them. 

“I’m just showing them the ropes of how Nick Rallis and Jack Lynn did for me last year,” Celestin said. “Making sure that even on our off days, we come in, watch more film and make sure we see the whole picture.” 

This season, it is Celestin’s turn to help the other linebackers. 

Celestin, along with Poock, will lead the linebacker group that features Cashman and Julian Huff, while some sophomores like Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin look to improve off their first years with the team.

“[The older linebackers] just taught me how to lead,” Martin said. “That’s one of the biggest improvements that I have done. They taught me how to lead and really demand more out of myself.”

 Amid some friendly competition, these linebackers are trying to be the best hitter. 

“That’s what I pride myself on,” Barber said. “I’m trying to take [Celestin’s] name, the ‘Thumper.’ He’s the ‘Thumper’ right now, so I’m trying to get a name like that.” 

The linebackers have been in limbo as to who is the hardest hitter, and it doesn’t look like they will find out any time soon. Celestin responded to Barber’s challenge without hesitation. 

“Nah. I’m not going to [give it away easily],” Celestin said. 

With training camp over and the season approaching fast, the core should be ready for games. Celestin and the linebackers have enough talent to be a force on the defense, but the right leadership will have to get them there. 

“[Celestin’s] a way better person, he’s a way better player, he’s a way better leader than what he was [on] the first day he walked in here to training camp.” Fleck said. “He’s always thirsty for knowledge. … That’s a guy you’re kind of hanging your hat on to lead your defense.”

Something to play for 

This offseason, just a few days after the Gophers’ spring game, tragedy struck the Celestin family. Celestin’s father, Frederick Celestin, died in April after being struck by a car while walking in Albany, Georgia. 

The two used to discuss improvements after games and Celestin has dedicated this season to his father. 

“We already had it planned out — he was going to come to the first game, he was going to come to Michigan as well and my senior day,”  Celestin said. “Things didn’t work out like they were supposed to.” 

Fleck said he’s seen Celestin grow as a player since the death of his father.  

“He’s living his life the way his dad would want him to live it,” Fleck said. “He’s celebrating his dad’s life every day.” 

The Jonesboro, Georgia native is ready to be that leader and has prepared to take on that position since last season. 

“I know I’m developing [the younger guys],” Celestin said. “Every time I’m going in to watch extra film, I’m telling them, ‘let’s go watch [film].’”

Coming off the edge 

Though Coughlin played his freshman season at linebacker, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Robb Smith chose to move Coughlin to line up as a defensive end. 

“Last year I came off the edge pretty much all the time,” Coughlin said. “I was pretty much only a third-edge, third-down rusher last year.” 

Coughlin’s move evens some things out, as the defensive line was compromised after Gaelin Elmore’s transfer in the offseason. The linebacker position still has some players who have seen increased rep time during camp, leading up to the season opener. 

Though he is a little undersized for a defensive end, he’s working on it. 

“[Last season] I was more around 214 [pounds],” Coughlin said. “This year, I’m 228 [pounds] and I’m about to hit 230.” 

The other linebacker joining Coughlin at the rush end position is freshman Trenton Guthrie, who flipped his commitment from Western Michigan, Fleck’s last stop, before choosing Minnesota in January. 

The linebacker depth lets these players move around, and with the core staying intact and developing under Fleck, defensive coordinator Robb Smith and Celestin have high hopes of leading the team to victory.