This is the sixth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team’s Aug. 1 start of practice.
Today’s position: Defensive line
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starters: defensive end Theiren Cockran (redshirt junior), defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli (redshirt senior), defensive tackle Scott Ekpe (junior), defensive end Michael Amaefula (senior)
Key backups: defensive end Ben Perry (redshirt senior), defensive tackle Robert Ndondo-Lay (junior), defensive tackle Harold Legania (redshirt senior), defensive end Hendrick Ekpe (sophomore)
The breakdown: No unit has a bigger hole to fill — literally and figuratively — than Minnesota’s defensive line. The Gophers lost defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman to the NFL, and at 6-foot-6 and 311 pounds, his presence will be missed. And while it’s hard to replace an NFL-caliber talent, Minnesota believes it has plenty of depth to absorb the loss of Hageman.
After playing alongside Hageman for the past few seasons, Botticelli will likely become one of the leaders on that defensive line. The Milwaukee native started all 13 games last season and finished with 23 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss. He also started 13 games as a sophomore and has plenty of experience under his belt. So, too, does Amaefula, who made four starts at defensive end as a freshman in 2011 and started 26 games over the past two years. The Gophers would like to see him get to the quarterback a bit more, though, as he didn’t register a sack last year.
Cockran was also a mainstay on the defensive line last year, joining Botticelli and Amaefula in starting all 13 games for Minnesota in 2013. He put up arguably the best numbers of anyone on that line, as his 7.5 sacks led the team and his 10 tackles for loss were second behind Hageman’s 13. The question now is whether Cockran can put up even better numbers in 2014 without the benefit of opposing defenses double-teaming Hageman.
Ekpe could be called upon to try to fill Hageman’s large shoes. Though he didn’t start a game in his first two seasons, Ekpe did see action in all 26 games over the last two years. At 6-foot-4 and 293 pounds, Ekpe isn’t quite the intimidating figure that Hageman was, but he’ll have the opportunity to produce at the tackle position.
Best position battle: While Amaefula, Botticelli and Cockran are all carryovers from last year’s front four, Ekpe is the one new addition to the starting defensive line. However, there’s a chance someone else could emerge from fall camp as the starting defensive tackle alongside Botticelli.
Ndondo-Lay could be one player to keep an eye on when camp kicks off in August. The coaching staff raved in the spring about the Minneapolis native who transferred from Winona State. With several defensive linemen limited during spring ball, the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Ndondo-Lay made the most of his opportunity to impress the coaches. He had a sack and three tackles in Minnesota’s spring game and could edge out Ekpe for the starting job.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Ohio State, 2. Michigan State, 3. Nebraska
There’s little argument that the Buckeyes’ front four is the cream of the Big Ten crop. Defensive end Noah Spence earned first-team All-Big Ten honors as a sophomore last year when he picked up eight sacks and added 14.5 tackles for loss. The line is bookended by fellow defensive end Joey Bosa, who thrived as a freshman last year to the tune of 44 tackles and 7.5 sacks. As a defense, Ohio State led the Big Ten with 42 sacks in 14 games last season.
Michigan State has developed a reputation as a defensive powerhouse, and the D-line is a big reason why. Leading the way this year is defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who was named the Big Ten’s Defensive Lineman of the Year in 2013 as a redshirt sophomore. He led MSU with 7.5 sacks and added 14 tackles for loss, garnering first-team All-Big Ten honors along the way. Fellow defensive end Marcus Rush is coming off an impressive season, too, and finished third on the Spartans last year with five sacks.
Huskers defensive end Randy Gregory amassed a whopping 19 tackles for loss as a sophomore last year, as well as a Big Ten-best 10.5 sacks. He’s the star of a Nebraska defensive line that boasts a bit of depth. Tackles Aaron Curry and Vincent Valentine started a combined 14 games last year and had 47 tackles and nine tackles for loss.
Cameron Botticelli says: "Every year, there’s seniors that graduate. Those are the most robust characters on the team. Last year’s class was no exception. But you get along, you pick up where they left off. All the seniors this year, they have four years of college football experience under their belt and they’re more than capable of leading this program to where we want it to go."