Gophers boast fairly experienced group on D-line

BY foxsports • July 26, 2013

This is the sixth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team's Aug. 1 start of practice.

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6

Projected starters: Ra'Shede Hageman (redshirt senior), Michael Amaefula (junior), Theiren Cockran (redshirt sophomore), Cameron Botticelli (redshirt junior)

Key backups: Ben Perry (redshirt junior), Scott Ekpe (sophomore), Roland Johnson (senior)

The breakdown: All eyes will be on Hageman this year, and for good reason. The senior tackle is certainly a presence on the defensive line, as he weighs in at 6-foot-6, 311 pounds. Of anyone on this defense -- or perhaps on the entire roster -- Hageman has the best NFL potential. He opted to return for his senior year instead of leaving school for the draft, which should prove to be a wise decision. Hageman, who had six sacks and 35 tackles as a junior last year, has already made several preseason watch lists.

Aside from Hageman, Minnesota does have plenty of experience along the defensive line, although the Gophers will have to fill the void left behind by the graduation of sack leader D.L. Wilhite. Amaefula emerged last year by starting all 13 games at defensive end and had 2.5 sacks and 19 tackles. He'll likely be joined on the other end by Cockran, who appeared in all 13 games as a redshirt freshman.

Whoever plays next to Hageman should have ample opportunity to make plays, as there's a good chance Hageman will see plenty of double-teams this year. Entering fall camp, Botticelli is slated to be the other starting tackle alongside Hageman. Botticcelli has played in 25 games during his first two seasons, including starts in all 13 games a year ago. He had 21 tackles but did not record a sack.

Best position battle: The starting front four seem to be set, but Minnesota often rotates in others along the defensive line. The best position battle will be to see who can crack the second rotation of four and earn playing time in a backup role.

Johnson played in 10 games and was impressive, recording two sacks and 21 tackles before a knee injury ended his season. He should be ready to go this fall. Perry made 12 starts as a freshman but saw his playing time drop as a sophomore when he made just one start. Still, he's another option at defensive end. Sophomore Alex Keith saw action in 12 of 13 games as a true freshman last year.

Ekpe, whose younger brother, Hendrick, will be a freshman defensive lineman for the Gophers this year, appeared in all 13 games and had four tackles for loss as a freshman. He should be in the mix to get reps with the second-team defense.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Ohio State 2. Michigan State 3. Wisconsin

The Buckeyes rank near the top of the Big Ten at most positions, and that includes defensive line. Sophomore Noah Spence was a highly-touted five-star recruit and played in 11 games as a true freshman. He has a chance to be a star for Urban Meyer's defense. Spence is one of several youngsters -- along with the likes of fellow sophomores Tommy Schutt and Adolphus Washington -- who should make the Buckeyes' defensive line a formidable one.

Even though Michigan State loses William Gholston, the Spartans' defensive line should still be one of the best in the Big Ten. Tackles Tyler Hoover (6-foot-7, 290 pounds) and James Kittridge (6-foot-4, 275) are forces on the inside of the line. MSU's rushing defense was the stingiest in the Big Ten last year, giving up just 98.6 yards per game.

The Badgers return a handful of seniors who started on the defensive line last year, led by Beau Allen. Wisconsin tied with Nebraska last year for second-most sacks in the Big Ten, and the D-line helped hold opponents to just 128.9 rushing yards per game, fourth-best in the conference.

Head coach Jerry Kill says: "(Ra'Shede's) done great things, he really has. He's focused in. He's got to stay in there and stay where he's at. It's just like anything, as we get older we mature. I think he knows what's in front of him if he does what he needs to do. He's certainly focused on it right now, and he's been that way since we've come back. He's really taken it up a notch."

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