Gophers’ defense led by improved LBs

Aaron Hill leads a group of youthful linebackers for the Gophers.

Gophers senior linebacker Aaron Hill returns a fumble 50 yards for a touchdown in Minnesota's 44-21 win over New Mexico State on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013.

Eric Miller, University of Minnesota

Gophers senior linebacker Aaron Hill returns a fumble 50 yards for a touchdown in Minnesota’s 44-21 win over New Mexico State on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013.

Jack Satzinger

A quick-paced, no-huddle offense left the Gophers’ defense disoriented at times in its season-opening win over Nevada-Las Vegas on Aug. 29.

In that game, the inexperienced group of linebackers looked confused and out of position as UNLV wore down the Minnesota defense.

In week two against New Mexico State, the Gophers were tested by the no-huddle offense once again — but this time,  the linebackers made necessary adjustments as Minnesota won 44-21.

“I thought we adjusted pretty well,” senior linebacker Aaron Hill said. “The coaches do a good job of throwing everything at us during practice, so they prepare us very well. They make us think fast. They make us react on the spot.”

Those preparations were on display early last weekend as junior college transfer linebacker Damien Wilson tackled NMSU running back Germi Morrison for a one-yard loss on the team’s first drive. On the next play, backup senior linebacker James Manuel jumped a route and deflected an Andrew McDonald pass to force the Aggies to punt.

Once the Gophers had built a 37-14 lead through a run-heavy attack, the defense scored a touchdown for the second straight week. After NMSU running back Brandon Betancourt fumbled, Hill scooped up the ball and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown.

“We knew they like to run the zone read,” Hill said. “I came outside to play the quarterback, saw the ball was on the ground … [and] picked up the ball.”

Hill, a redshirt senior, has turned into one of the Gophers’ leaders on defense this season even though he didn’t receive much playing time in his first four years at Minnesota. He recorded a team-high 10 tackles Saturday.

The team’s other starting linebackers were right behind Hill with eight tackles apiece and appear to be just scratching the surface after both transferring from junior colleges.

De’Vondre Campbell is just a redshirt sophomore, and head coach Jerry Kill said he can turn into a Ra’Shede Hageman-like player in the future. Wilson, a junior, also has the potential to improve as his time at Minnesota plays out.

“I think both those kids are getting better,” Kill said. “As the weeks go by, they’re on tap because they’ve got athletic ability.”

Campbell and Wilson will need to continue to improve if Minnesota plans on being competitive in the Big Ten. The conference features a multitude of dual-threat quarterbacks such as Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez, Michigan’s Devin Gardner and Northwestern’s Kain Colter. These mobile quarterbacks can put extra stress on linebackers.

Those players figure to pose a much tougher test for the Gophers’ linebackers than a New Mexico State team that went 1-11 last season.

Minnesota will take on a Football Championship Subdivision team in Western Illinois this weekend before its schedule starts to ramp up in a few weeks.