Former walk-on fullback sparks defense

Middle linebacker Mike Sherels played fullback before being moved to linebacker.

Matt Perkins

After Minnesota’s football team’s win over Colorado State last weekend, Rams coach Sonny Lubick called it a “good old-fashioned butt-kicking,” saying the Gophers really proved to him that they were a strong and physical team.

Proving himself the most this season may be the one defensive player who had a lot to prove, middle linebacker Mike Sherels.

Sherels, a sophomore, made his first career start against Tulsa in week one, and it didn’t take him long to capitalize on the opportunity. He earned his first career sack early in the first quarter.

Although it was a fairly short road to being an impact player for Sherels, it came with a lot of twists and turns.

“I almost went down to Northern Iowa,” Sherels said. “I had offers from North Dakota and NDSU, and many I-AA and Division II teams, but that didn’t get me. I wanted a chance here, just to see what would happen.”

Sherels walked on and redshirted his freshman season, with coach Glen Mason intending to play him at fullback. But it didn’t take too long for him to change his mind.

“I think I moved him to defense because I was tired of seeing him knock our linebackers out of practice,” Mason said. “They were the happiest guys in the world when I put him over there.”

Sherels’ athleticism and versatility on the football field started in high school, where he worked double-duty playing both linebacker and fullback.

In his senior season at John Marshall High School in Rochester, Minn., Sherels rushed for 732 yards and 14 touchdowns in just 11 games. And on the other side of the ball he excelled even more, accumulating 132 tackles, two sacks, three interceptions and a fumble recovery.

“He plays with a certain intensity,” Sherels’ high school football coach Jack Drews said. “His best position was linebacker, but as fullback his attitude was ‘I’m going to run over somebody rather than run around them.’ “

That mentality hasn’t changed, but rather has been contagious, with the rest of the Gophers defense showing symptoms early on this season.

Minnesota has seven forced fumbles through just two games, three shy of their 2004 season mark of 10. They have also recovered five fumbles, again just three shy of their season total from a year ago.

Sherels himself has recovered two fumbles, is second on the team with 16 tackles (John Pawielski leads with 18) and has intercepted a pass to go along with his sack.

The numbers aren’t too shabby considering he had doubts of whether he could play linebacker in Division I football.

“Playing linebacker in the Big Ten? Originally I didn’t believe that I could play linebacker at this level,” Sherels said. “I knew the position because I played it in high school, but I was comfortable at fullback. I switched and it was a bit overwhelming at first and I had a lot to learn, but I feel comfortable now.”

And more importantly, the Minnesota football program is comfortable with him.

Just before the start of the season, after the last two-a-day practice for the Gophers, the risk Sherels took in coming to Minnesota to “see what would happen,” finally paid off. He was awarded a full scholarship by the football team.

“I didn’t want to look back and say ‘I wonder if I could’ve played there’ or say, ‘I wish I would’ve tried it,’ ” Sherels said. “I figured I could always transfer down to play more in Division II. I guess I was following the dream, and it’s worked out.”