Minnesota's Cameron Botticelli, who started 11 games last year alongside Ra'Shede Hageman as a redshirt junior, returns to anchor the Gophers' defensive line in 2014.
Bradley Leeb-USA TODAY Sports
MINNEAPOLIS — Ra’Shede Hageman was just one player on a Gophers defense that played 11 men at a time. But he also happens to be an all-but-certain first-round pick in the NFL Draft, meaning Minnesota will have a void on the defensive line during the 2014 season.
Players of Hageman’s caliber don’t come along often, so it’s even tougher when they graduate. Such is life in college football, though, and now the Gophers are preparing for life after Hageman.
"You just don’t walk in and replace guys like that. It’s got to be a group effort," said Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill. "Maybe we stack one on top of somebody’s shoulders, because he’s a unique individual."
While Hageman and his 6-foot-6, 311-pound frame are headed to the NFL, that doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare for the Gophers along the defensive line. Quite the opposite, in fact. Minnesota returns a pair of defensive ends in redshirt junior Theiren Cockran and senior Michael Amaefula, both of whom started all 13 games last season. And defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli, who started 11 games last year alongside Hageman as a redshirt junior, is also returning.
There may not be a first-rounder in the bunch, but Minnesota feels confident about its depth and experience that the returning defensive linemen bring.
"That front four there has played a lot of football," Kill said. "And our job is to make sure we’ve got guys coming in, guys that are developing."
Replacing first-round defensive line talent is nothing new for Kill and his coaching staff. When they were together at Division II Saginaw Valley State, defensive end Lamar King went 22nd overall to the Seattle Seahawks in the 1999 draft. A decade later at Northern Illinois, defensive lineman Larry English was drafted 19th overall by San Diego.
Hageman is expected to go late in the first round in this year’s draft in May. Once again, Kill’s staff is prepared to reload on the defensive line.
"We’re used to up front having to replace great players," said Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who was on Kill’s staff during all three of those eras. "You don’t replace them. Everyone’s got to pick it up a little bit. You want people who are steady."
Botticelli has indeed been a steady force on the line since his redshirt freshman season in 2011. The Milwaukee native appeared in all 12 of Minnesota’s games that year and went on to make 13 starts as a sophomore in 2012. As a junior this past season, Boticelli had 23 tackles and 5 1/2 tackles for loss, as well as one sack.
Now that he’s not playing in Hageman’s large shadow, Botticelli knows this is his year to emerge as a senior leader on the Gophers’ front four.
"This is a huge season for me personally," said Botticelli, a former walk-on who was eventually given a scholarship. "Everything, all the work that’s gone in these past four years, it’s time to cash in."
When asked to name a defensive lineman who hasn’t had a chance to prove himself yet but who may emerge this season, Botticelli mentioned Harold Legania, a fellow redshirt senior defensive tackle. When prompted for the name of a younger defensive lineman who has turned heads, Botticelli brought up Robert Ndono-Lay, a redshirt junior from Minneapolis who transferred this winter from Winona State.
Of the returning defensive linemen, Cockran led all Gophers last year with 7 1/2 sacks. His 10 tackles for loss were second only to Hageman’s 13. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the experience and the number of starts that this defensive line will be able to boast entering 2014.
"Every year, there’s seniors that graduate. Those are the most robust characters on the team," Botticelli said. "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."
As a redshirt senior, Botticelli has already graduated with a degree in political science. He’s now working on his masters of education and will walk across the stage at the commencement ceremony this summer.
With a diploma already in hand, Botticelli has another goal in his sights: continuing to move the Gophers football program — and the defensive line — forward.
"I sat here, I think it was two years ago, and I said, ‘Well, no one really thinks that going 6-7 and losing the bowl game is a big deal,’" Botticelli said. "There are some people that don’t think going 8-5 and losing out is a big deal. But the momentum is, and it’s there and it’s building."