Gophers linemen must create more pressure
This is the sixth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the University of Minnesota football team's start of practice.
July 22: Quarterbacks
July 23: Running backs
July 24: Wide receivers
July 25: Tight ends
July 26: Offensive linemen
July 27: Defensive linemen
July 28: Linebackers
July 29: Cornerbacks
July 30: Safeties
July 31: Specialists
Aug. 1: Coaches
TODAY'S POSITION: DEFENSIVE LINEMEN
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6
Projected starters: DE Ben Perry (redshirt sophomore), DE D.L. Wilhite (redshirt senior), DT Ra'Shede Hageman (redshirt junior), DT Cameron Botticelli (redshirt sophomore)
Key backups: DE Michael Amaefula (sophomore), DT Harold Legania (redshirt sophomore), DT Eric Jacques (redshirt junior), DE Thieren Cockran (redshirt freshman)
The breakdown: In 2010, the Gophers defense registered only nine sacks all season, easily the fewest in the Big Ten. That sack total increased to 19 in 2011, third-fewest in the conference. Though that number showed improvement, many of those sacks came from positions other than the defensive line. Linebacker Gary Tinsley, who passed away unexpectedly from heart failure in April, led Minnesota with four sacks. Wilhite led the defensive line with three sacks, and Hageman added two.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said the Gophers relied too much on blitz packages to pick up sacks, which in turn left the secondary vulnerable. This season, Minnesota must do a better job of creating pressure and penetration from the offensive line.
It starts with Wilhite and Hageman, two returning members of the line that received extensive playing time in 2011. Wilhite made eight starts at defensive end and appeared in all 12 games as a junior and had three tackles-for-loss and a fumble. Hageman also played in all 12 games last year as a redshirt sophomore and picked up 13 tackles and four tackles-for-loss along with his two sacks. The Gophers primarily used Hageman in passing situations last year, but Claeys said Hageman has improved his ability to defend the run.
One constant on the line was Perry, who started all 12 games at defensive end as a redshirt freshman. He should be penciled in as a starter on one of the ends again this season. Botticelli also played in every game in 2011 as a redshirt freshman but did not make any starts.
"The guys on the line probably from the first of the year to the end of the year probably made the most progress," Claeys said. "We just had a hard time getting them to be a penetrating, up-the-field attack front up until toward the end of the year and through spring ball. I'm expecting a big improvement up there."
Best position battle: Claeys likes to use a rotation of eight defensive linemen during the game in order to keep players fresh. It appears as if the starting four is pretty set, so the battle now is for who will be on the second-string line. Amaefula played in all 12 games as a true freshman, including making four starts at end. If he doesn't crack the starting roster, he should get plenty of snaps as a backup.
After playing in only one game as a redshirt freshman in 2010, Jacques played in seven games last year. Cockran, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound defensive end from Florida, redshirted last season and should garner some playing time as a redshirt freshman. Claeys is also intrigued by defensive tackle Roland Johnson, who transferred to Minnesota from Butler County Community College. At 6-foot-1, 295 pounds, Johnson had 27 tackles and three sacks as a sophomore last year.
Legania redshirted in 2010 and did not get on the field in 2011, but Claeys expects him to make contributions this year. Junior defensive end Matt Garin brings a bit of experience to the line as a backup, having played in 20 games over the past two seasons. He had five tackles in 2011.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Ohio State. 2. Michigan State. 3. Nebraska. Buckeyes senior tackle John Simon had seven sacks a year ago, fifth-most in the conference and fourth-most for a defensive lineman. He also registered 16 tackles for loss. Alongside him is fellow senior Nathan Williams, a defensive end who missed almost all of last season with a knee injury. Tackle Johnathan Hankins is a force in the middle at 6-foot-3, 317 pounds. Ohio State is certainly deep at this position. Michigan State must make up for the loss of Jerel Worthy, but it has another star in William Gholston, perhaps the top defensive end in the conference. Nebraska loses tackle Jared Crick from last season's team but has depth.
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