Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg
Two weeks ago, the mere mention of Nate Triplett's name would have drawn blank stares around the Big Ten and even among some Minnesota fans.
Triplett had been around for a while at Minnesota, appearing in 26 games for the Gophers with one start at linebacker before this season. He was a special-teams stud, but few ever remember special-teams studs.
Some undoubtedly asked, 'Who was that guy?' after Triplett intercepted Syracuse's Greg Paulus in overtime at the Carrier Dome, setting up Minnesota's game-winning field goal in the opener. Then last Saturday, Triplett exploded for a career-high 17 tackles against Air Force and broke open a tie game with a 52-yard fumble return for a touchdown as Minnesota won 20-13.
No defender in the Big Ten and perhaps none in the country has played more instrumental roles in two victories than Triplett, who was named Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week for his efforts against Air Force.
"It’s my last season, senior year," Triplett said, "and I set the bar high coming in, saying, ‘You know what? I’m not going to hold anything back.’ I just give it everything I got every snap, every practice, every day."
For his first three seasons, those snaps were limited. Triplett played on coverage teams but couldn't crack the starting lineup at linebacker.
"He’s been the best special-teams player in the Big Ten the past two years," Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster said. "He just did an amazing job covering kicks."
Like any competitor, Triplett thought he should be playing more. But he didn't complain.
Instead, he embraced special teams and made his mark whenever he could.
"That was my role," he said. "We had a lot of good players playing linebacker then, so I accepted that and worked and played my hardest on special teams. That really carried over. I played fast on special teams, and that’s carrying over to linebacker. Made plays on special teams and I’m doing my best to make plays on defense right now."
Minnesota's linebacking corps has a new look this year, with both Triplett and fellow senior Simoni Lawrence stepping into starting roles. Starting middle linebacker Lee Campbell returns, and all three players have made their mark this season.
Campbell earned Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors after recording 13 tackles (11 solo), with 1.5 tackles for loss and a pass breakup against Syracuse. Campbell followed with 11 tackles (1.5 for loss) against Air Force, while Lawrence added 10 stops. Having all three linebackers record double digits in tackles is a strong indicator for success against the run-happy Falcons.
"We all played disciplined; nobody played selfish," Lawrence said. "We've got a great group. You’ve got Lee, who’s just a big, nasty guy in the middle who tries to rip people’s heads off. Then you’ve got Triplett. As big as he is, he’s really athletic. I call him farm boy because he grew up on a farm. He’s as strong as an ox."
When informed of Lawrence's nickname for him, Triplett sighs.
"I don’t think he really understands what the farm is and all that business," Triplett said.
The truth is Triplett moved to rural Delano, Minn., with his family when he was in fifth grade. His grandfather owned a farm, and Triplett would often lend a hand.
"I didn’t live on a farm, but I worked on a farm and hung out with my grandpa a lot on the farm, too," Triplett said.
With Triplett coming from the plains, Campbell a Florida native and Lawrence hailing from the Philadelphia area, the Minnesota linebackers are a unique group. Their different backgrounds and styles pay off on the field.
“Simoni’s faster, I’m not afraid to say it," Triplett said. "And he works more out in space. Lee and I are more the middle-backer kind of thing. But when it comes down to football, we all have the same goal."
Their immediate goal calls for stopping California star running back Jahvid Best on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium (ESPN, noon ET). Minnesota did a nice job of holding Air Force's run game in check, but Best and backup Shane Vereen pose a much greater challenge.
“It’s not every day that you get to play against a Heisman candidate," Triplett said. "I look forward to it, and hopefully we can make some plays."