The Gopher linebackers in 2021, will they be an upgrade or a downgrade?
Well, this was the unit that stood out last year, for all the wrong reasons. As mentioned in the defensive tackles post, the Gopher defense was not very good against the rush last year and much of that is due to the linebacker play.
But for today the only question that matters is, will they be better?
How did I do last year?
I recall late in the 2019 season stating to some of the other TDG writers that I was very worried about linebacker in 2020. I was told that Braelen Oliver and Sori-Marin were going to be just fine. I bought it.
As stated, it is really hard to replace two starters like Martin and Barber. For game 1, I think an argument could be made that this unit will be neutral, but certainly not an upgrade until shown otherwise.
Since we are 2 days away from playing our first game, I will let the optimism flow through me and declare this group will be neutral.
We were all wrong. Mostly. To be very fair, Oliver was injured and did not play for the entire 2020 season. Starting in his place was a very low-rated true freshman who had earned it in camp. But collectively, this unit was a very clear downgrade.
Starter: Codey Lindenberg, Mariano Sori-Marin
Depth: James Gordon, Josh Aune, Donald Willis, Lucas Finnessy
The real blow to this group for last season was losing Braelen Oliver, who had become part of the rotation during the 2019 season and played well. With Oliver out, the level of inexperience for this unit increased dramatically.
Sori-Marin was also a guy who had seen plenty of reps in 2019, even a handful of starts. But when put into the position of leading this linebacker crew, he struggled.
Then surrounding him were several players just lacking in the necessary experience.
Collectively these guys were often caught over-pursuing or just out of place and then missing tackles.
Starter: Braelen Oliver, Mariano Sori-Marin
Depth: Codey Lindenberg, Jack Gibbens, James Gordon, Donald Willis, Josh Aune, Lucas Finnessy
Just like every other position, everyone returns. Maybe the biggest question facing this defense is if this group has taken steps to really improve.
I did have the opportunity to see a spring practice and hear Sori-Marin talk about his struggles in 2020. It really seems as though the primary problem was just him trying to do too much. A defense works best when you have talented players at all 11 positions who understand their job and do exactly that. When someone tries to make up for someone else or tries to make a splash play instead of the sound one, then people are out of position and the offense wins. Sori-Marin is a talented kid, it is time for the maturity and leadership to kick in for the young man.
Getting Oliver back is potentially significant. Presumably starting on the outside and back to making plays.
Lindenberg is a really interesting kid here. Lightly recruited out of Anoka (not exactly a football factory), Lindenberg arrived on campus and immediately earned the starting spot alongside Sori-Marin for game 1 against Michigan. Unsurprisingly, the true freshman struggled against Big Ten opponents. But the experience was significant and it will be interesting to see how much he contributes this fall.
The new name on the list is Gibbens, a transfer from Abilene Christian. Experienced and will most likely be in the mix at MLB. I do think that Gibbens looked rather good during the spring practice we saw, but that was obviously a very limited window.
Then we get to a couple of my favorite names in Gordon and Willis. Both are guys I would love to see take off this year. Love their size and ability and feel as though they’ve been right on the verge of not only getting more playing time, but becoming very good.
As mentioned, everyone is back so it is hard not to see an upgrade here. But in this case, there is so much room for improvement that an upgrade really may not mean much.
As we get into previewing the team more, it will really be important to asses how much of an improvement this group needs to show. But I think calling this an upgrade in 2021 is a safe bet.
I do expect Sori-Marin to be better. I expect having Oliver back will make them better. The experienced gained by Lindenberg is only going to help. And I think that Gibbens is going to add some leadership and depth.
Trusting their reads, trusting the other 10 guys on the field and then making the plays in front of them is all it takes. Sounds simple enough, but this group is really critical to the improvement of the defense.