State of Gophers linebackers shows what can happen in current college football landscape

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The roster of Gopher linebackers in 2023 compared to 2022 reveal the realities and ravages of the current state of college football.

Inexperienced players Devon Williams and Maverick Baranowski have been thrust into starting roles in all six games this season. A year ago, they were the No. 8 and 9 linebackers on Minnesota’s total tackle list. Williams had two tackles and Baranowski one.

How Minnesota was forced to start a redshirt freshman and redshirt sophomore this season has been the byproduct of three primary factors:

1. Inevitable graduations. Last year spelled the end of college football for top tackler and leader Mariano Sori-Marin as well as backup Josh Aune of St. Paul.

2. Injuries. Top returner Cody Lindeberg was expected to be an all-Big Ten-caliber player, but the Anoka native’s leg injury has forced him to miss all six games so far this season. Also, Derik LeCaptain is out for the year with an arm injury.

3. Transfer portal. Backups Braelen Oliver and Donald Willis exited the U after last season. Oliver returned to his home state to play at Georgia Tech, while Willis apparently sought more playing time at the Group of Five conference level and transferred to Western Michigan.

Defections of top-end players via the transfer portal deliver bigger impacts to programs and a higher level of angst to fan bases, but the exits of up-and-coming or depth pieces can wreak its own level of havoc on rosters such as the Gophers’.

“It’s either experienced depth or it’s going to be young depth,” Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck said Tuesday on KFAN. “Every team is going to do that based in what you do in NIL (name, image and likeness) and transfer portal. … That’s up to us. That is what it looks like. This is called young depth.

“It’s good. It just might not be as flavorful and what you want exactly right now because of how college football has changed and adapted. It’s my job to solve those issues and make those problems solutions. It’s not just a magic wand. There are answers to it, but some people don’t like those answers.”

The best short-term answer is Lindeberg gets healthy. Going into a rivalry game at No. 24 Iowa on Saturday, Fleck said Lindeberg is “closer,” without sharing more details.

“He’s one of our best players; we need him on the field. We are definitely closer” to getting him back, Fleck said on the radio. “… He’s a huge part of our football team, and when you have a team that lacks lots of experience in the depth, that is what happens. We had to stay healthy at certain positions.”

The loss of an all-conference performer will hurt any team, but that’s especially true on middle-tier programs like Minnesota. If safety Tyler Nubin, for instance, were sidelined, the U’s defense would be much more susceptible as younger, green players took over.

“(Lindenberg) knows the answers. … He’s got all the checks, including the late shifts and motions that happen really late that change our fits,” Fleck continued. “He’s got all the answers to the test. We’re getting young players to know those answers right now. But again, it’s one thing of knowing it and mastering and doing it and another thing of just learning it. We have some of those things going on right now.”

It has been a baptism by fire for Baranowski and Williams, who made their first starts in the opener against Nebraska. They have gained valuable reps, but missed tackles, some poor run fits and missteps in zone-coverage drops have been issues at times.

Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has built a name for himself with quality defenses over the past four seasons. He said that success is predicated on players being able to think critically about their roles and apply their knowledge.

“Young guys want you to give them the answer,” Rossi said. “I want them to figure out the answer. When they get to that point, then they really know it.”

Previous trials have led to greater understanding for many previous players, including some who have moved onto the NFL. But growing pains along the way can be bumpy.

Given the amount of turnover at linebacker, the Gophers brought in senior transfer Ryan Selig from Western Michigan, but he has played only 167 snaps. Williams leads the position with 357 snaps, while Baranowski is at 294. Walk-on linebacker Tyler Stolsky has stepped in for 18 snaps. That’s it.

The long-term point Fleck wants to make is that having more robust NIL options for players will help keep future players from being as enticed to head to another school, be it closer to home or to a smaller conference where playing time seems more readily available.

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