Mariano Sori-Marin knew he shouldn't touch the hot stove. Gophers coaches had warned of getting burned by being too curious and straying from discipline. Still, there Sori-Marin was, on a blitz against Maryland in 2020, trying to chase down Terrapins quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa.
Problem was, Sori-Marin drifted too far inside on a twist with end Thomas Rush, enabling Tagovailoa to spin outside and scamper 39 yards for a touchdown in the Terrapins' 45-44 overtime win.
Two years later, Sori-Marin, the Gophers fifth-year senior inside linebacker, has learned from such miscues to become a leader on a solid defense. Entering his third season as a starter, Sori-Marin and the Gophers will try to pick up where they left off last year in the Sept. 1 season opener against New Mexico State at Huntington Bank Stadium.
"You can tell a kid that the stove is hot — and I got that coaching point countless times — but until you touch the stove, sometimes it has to be touched for you to truly learn what it takes,'' Sori-Marin said.
Sori-Marin embodies and embraces the "failure is growth'' mantra instilled by coach P.J. Fleck and the "attention to detail'' approach demanded by defensive coordinator Joe Rossi. The 6-3, 245-pounder from Mokena, Ill., helped the Gophers finish third nationally in total defense (fewest yards allowed) with 278.8 per game last year. Along the way, he ranked second on the team with 85 tackles and earned All-Big Ten honorable mention.
He aims to keep building his game and help his team improve on last year's 9-4 record, a season in which the Gophers were a win over Iowa away from advancing to the Big Ten Championship Game.
"When I look back at my early career, I didn't have as much success as I probably would have liked,'' Sori-Marin said at Big Ten media days in July, "but I understand now that it's part of the process and has made me into a better linebacker and the player I am now.''
That growth process hasn't always been easy, especially in 2020. Sori-Marin assumed a larger role after the loss of 2019 stalwart Thomas Barber and others to graduation. Though he led the Gophers with 54 tackles in seven games, the defense surrendered 415.9 yards per game (72nd nationally) and the team went 3-4.
COVID-19 robbed the team of practice time and chances to build camaraderie in 2020, which were factors in the slide, Sori-Marin believes, but he also knew he had to get better in a hurry.
"As a linebacker, I can just go back in the time machine to all the mistakes that I've made. It's OK to make that mistake if you're going to never let that happen again,'' he said. "We talk about that in the linebacker room all the time — just crossing off mistakes off lists. … It's part of the position, just part of your process as in development as a player, especially in college football.''
One last ride
Sori-Marin rebounded nicely in 2021, and a big assist in that development can go to Jack Gibbens, the graduate transfer from Abilene Christian who lined up next to Sori-Marin and led the Gophers with 92 tackles. Gibbens' steady play helped Sori-Marin hone his game, too.
"He had such a great football IQ,'' Sori-Marin said of Gibbens, who's drawn raves as a free agent signee in Tennessee Titans training camp. "Having him and me out there together was just a great opportunity to bounce off each other, and that's what good linebacker play and good defense is built on — communication, everybody on the same page.''
Center John Michael Schmitz, who often goes head-to-head against Sori-Marin in practice, is impressed with the leadership he's seen from the fellow Illinois native.
"He's definitely a very knowledgeable linebacker,'' Schmitz said. "He's very physical. He's doing a tremendous job this season, leading that group and putting that group under his wing.''
Fleck rewarded Sori-Marin for his leadership by selecting him as one of the Gophers representatives at Big Ten media days, and the linebacker soaked it all in at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, recalling those hot-stove moments to where he is now.
"When I came out here earlier today, I took a mental picture and said, 'Wow, this is my first Big Ten media days, this is my last Big Ten media days,' '' he said. "This is a moment I'll remember the rest of my life.''