MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team lost a number of defensive linemen to injuries in Thursday’s win over Eastern Illinois, and one of those was season-ending.
Junior defensive tackle Scott Ekpe is out for the year, head coach Jerry Kill said at his press conference Tuesday. While Kill didn’t give an update on exactly what Ekpe’s injury is, he did say the Lewisville, Texas, native is done for 2014.
"It looks like pretty for sure that Scott Ekpe is done for the season. That’s a major blow," Kill said. "Tough deal for Scott. You never know about that kid. Great kid. He’ll work hard. But that’s where we’re at with that."
Thursday’s game against Eastern Illinois was the first start of Ekpe’s career. He previously played in 26 games during his first two seasons, tallying a total of 33 tackles and five tackles for loss. Ekpe didn’t record a stat Thursday as his injury came in the first quarter of Minnesota’s 42-20 victory.
Kill didn’t give any additional comments on injuries to several of the other defensive linemen, including Yoshoub Timms and Alex Keith, but did add that defensive end Michael Amaefula — who missed Thursday’s opener with an injury — should be back for Saturday’s game.
Without Ekpe, and with several others still banged up, it will allow for other defensive linemen to see their playing time increase. That includes a trio of freshmen in Steven Richardson, Andrew Stelter and Gaelin Elmore who all saw time in Thursday’s game. Their workload will only go up, said Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
"Coach reminds you all the time, it’s our job as coaches that you put the best people on the field that you have available, ask them to do what they can do," said Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. "As far as preparing, you can’t worry about the ones you It’s their job to get healthy and get better. Right away we just looked at who’s the next best people we can put in there, what things can we do that they’re capable of doing. . . . Those young kids, we don’t have any other choice. Throw them in there, they’re more than capable of getting it done."
Richardson, a 6-foot, 291-pound defensive tackle, finished Thursday’s game with three tackles and half a sack in his college debut. Elmore, a converted tight end, picked up two solo tackles. While Stelter didn’t wind up on the stat sheet, he did get his first action in a college game.
Minnesota will still lean heavily on its upperclassmen among the line, including fifth-year senior defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli and redshirt junior Theiren Cockran. But the younger linemen impressed their coaches and teammates in their first game.
"Steve Richardson had a solid first game for a true freshman," Botticelli said. "Some people on the outside may be surprised. I’m not surprised that he played well his first game, because I’ve seen him work. I’ve seen him stay after practice — coincidentally, with me. ‘Hey, what do I need to do better?’"
Offense hopes to get playmakers involved: Leading up to the season opener last Thursday, Kill praised the work that junior wide receiver KJ Maye had put in, saying that Maye had arguably the best camp of any receiver.
That’s why it was a bit puzzling to see Maye as a non-factor in Minnesota’s victory. He didn’t have a single catch and was never used in the run game. It seemed as if quarterback Mitch Leidner rarely looked Maye’s direction, either.
Given what kind of weapon they think Maye can be, the Gophers hope to get the ball in his hands more this Saturday.
"I think that comes with what they’re giving you," said offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. "There were some times where I think he looked back on it and said, That’s what I needed to get to a little bit sooner. You like the fact that he’s able to look at that and say, ‘Okay, these are the mistakes I made, this was the blind spot I had in this game.’"
Kill mentioned the names of several other players he’d like to get more involved in the offense, including freshman running back Berkley Edwards and tight end Maxx Williams. Edwards had four carries in his first game, and scored on two of them — including a 42-yarder. And Williams had just two catches but went for 57 yards, thanks in part to a nice hurdle over an Eastern Illinois defender in the open field.
Williams emerged as a playmaker last season with the Gophers as a redshirt freshman and led Minnesota in both catches and receiving yards. His hurdle was a reminder of the athleticism that the Waconia native possesses.
"I got lucky. I saw him going down and I jumped up as high as I could because I got a little scared. I thought he was going to hit me low," Williams said. "I figured I might as well try to jump, and it worked out for me."
Kill happy for former quarterback Gray: Over the weekend, the Minnesota Vikings signed a name Kill knows very well: MarQueis Gray, who played quarterback and receiver during Kill’s first two years as the Gophers’ coach.
Gray has since switched to tight end/fullback and spent the 2013 season with the Cleveland Browns. He’ll now be playing his home games for the Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium, the same stadium he called home with the Gophers.
Perhaps he’ll even bump into his old coach while he’s there.
"I’m excited for him. He’s a great kid," Kill said of Gray. "I can remember walking in my first meeting, he was standing out there waiting on me. But he was waiting to play quarterback."