MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers football team had the tough task last spring of replacing defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman. It wasn’t an easy job to fill the shoes of a second-round NFL draft pick who stood 6-foot-6 and weighed 311 pounds.
One year later, Minnesota is again attempting to fill some holes on the defensive line. This time the Gophers have to find replacements for a pair of mainstays, Cameron Botticelli and Michael Amaefula. Throughout his career at Minnesota, Botticelli started 37 games at defensive tackle, including all 13 as a senior. Amaefula had 41 career starts at defensive end over his four years with the Gophers.
That’s a lot of experience and production gone from Minnesota’s defensive line. But after going through a similar process when Hageman graduated, the Gophers feel prepared to once again plug the holes on the line.
"We’ve got as much depth at the D-line since we’ve been here," said Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. "The best thing about freshmen is they grow up and become sophomores. Those kids have done a nice job so far practicing. They’ve improved a lot."
Minnesota sill returns plenty of experience on the defensive line, including defensive end Theiren Cockran. As a redshirt junior in 2014, the Florida native started 12 games and had four sacks and seven tackles for loss. He also had a streak of 21 consecutive starts at defensive end, which was snapped during his junior year.
Now as he enters his senior season, Cockran feels he’s ready for his role to increase, both on the field and in the locker room as a team leader.
"I feel like I played that role last year, but I felt like I had to step it up another notch," Cockran said earlier this month after a spring practice. "I’m definitely the leader of this D-line. I look forward to holding that role."
Cockran won’t be alone as he leads the charge up front. Minnesota got solid production last season from a pair of true freshmen defensive linemen in Steven Richardson and Gaelin Elmore. Richardson, a stocky 6-foot, 291-pound defensive tackle, started 12 of Minnesota’s 13 games and had six tackles for loss. Elmore, a converted tight end, played in all 13 games at defensive end, including a start against Iowa in which he tallied a sack.
That means the Gophers will have a pair of sophomores who head into fall camp with a combined 13 starts on the defensive line. Pair that with the veteran presence of Cockran at defensive end, and it’s certainly a good start for Minnesota.
There’s still another tackle spot up for grabs with the departure of Botticelli, who became one of the leaders on the line. The Gophers are eagerly anticipating the return of defensive tackle Scott Ekpe, who tore his ACL in the first game of the 2014 season. His injury last year opened the door for Richardson, who now could be playing alongside Ekpe in 2015.
Though Ekpe hasn’t taken part in spring practices as he continues to rehab his knee, Minnesota’s coaching staff is hopeful he can be a productive member of the defensive line this season.
"That’s the main thing that we need (is) Scott back. He’s working very hard," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "Steve Richardson, I think we know what we can do. He continues to do what he’s at. . . . Of course, we lose Botticelli. We need Scott back, and then we build depth from there."
Ekpe’s brother, Hank, is another defensive lineman who gained valuable experience in 2014. He earned his first career start at defensive end, but he was hampered by a viral infection last spring that limited his ability to practice. The infection caused painful headaches and was made worse as the weather turned colder.
Now that Hank Ekpe feels he has a handle on it all — he’s taking medication and vitamins, which he says have helped — he looks forward to joining his older brother again as they look to make Minnesota’s defensive line a force to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.
"He’s all of a sudden matured," Kill said of Hank Ekpe. "Right now he just needs to keep doing what he’s doing and he’s going to have a heck of a year. I don’t know what it is. Some kids mature later than others. But he’s always been an athlete. He’s playing hard right now. We ain’t blocked him on the pass rush yet."