Cameron Botticelli: Expect pleasant surprises this fall from Gophers DL
AUG 09, 2013 9:37a ET
The 6-foot-6, 311-pound senior is a physical presence, and one that opposing offenses have to focus their game plan around. So with opponents worrying so much about what Hageman is going to do, the rest of Minnesota's defensive line knows it has an opportunity to make hay.
"Ra'Shede's worked really hard. He deserves any hype that he does get," said junior defensive lineman Cameron Botticelli. "But I do think that this D-line is packed with other talented players who have been working just as hard as Ra'Shede in the offseason. I'd expect a couple pleasant surprises come the fall."
Just as there are at many other positions, Minnesota has a battle along the defensive line for who will start on Aug. 29 in the season opener against UNLV. Hageman is a shoe-in, and Botticelli should be alongside him at the other tackle spot. The Milwaukee native started 13 games last year and played in 12 games as a freshman.
At both defensive end positions, though, nothing appears set in stone. Junior Michael Amaefula, who made 13 starts at defensive end last year, should hold down one of those spots. Redshirt sophomore Thieren Cockran hopes he can be the final piece of the defensive line puzzle.
During his redshirt season in 2011, Cockran was listed at 221 pounds -- drastically undersized for a defensive lineman. Since then he's gone through the Gophers' strength and conditioning program and has bulked up to 245 pounds, a weight he feels comfortable at.
"I feel like I'm better in shape," Cockran said. "Just working hard, all the little things, same as last year, getting better every day. I'm staying focused, that's it."
Whoever does take that vacant defensive end spot will have big shoes to fill as the Gophers look for a replacement for D.L. Wilhite. As a senior last year, Wilhite led the team with 8.5 sacks, while Hageman had six. Amaefula was third on the list but had just 2.5 sacks.
Having learned the tricks of the trade from Wilhite last year, Cockran insists there's no pressure in trying to replace Minnesota's best pass rusher from a year ago.
"He worked with me a lot last year," Cockran said of Wilhite. "He showed me a lot of things sitting behind him. Going back this year and watching more film, I feel it's prepared me more. The way he was so good, it made me a better player."
Minnesota's coaches are hoping that their best defensive player -- Hageman -- can help make those around him better, too. During the 2012 season, Hageman was beginning to see more and more opponents double-teaming him.
If Hageman doesn't let the double teams frustrate him, it can be a benefit to his teammates who see one-on-one coverage as a result.
"If he gets doubled all the time, then that creates an opportunity for somebody else to be single blocked," said Gophers coach Jerry Kill. "A great player will make everybody better around him. That's when you really know you've got a good player."
Aside from what appears to be the starting four defensive linemen, the Gophers appear to have depth at the position for the first time in a while. Senior Roland Johnson is recovered from an ACL injury and has received praise from the coaching staff so far this fall. So, too, has Scott Ekpe, a sophomore from Lewisville, Texas, who played in 13 games as a true freshman. Harold Legania is another player whose name has come up this fall, even though he played in just three total games during his first two seasons.
Ben Perry is a redshirt junior who has experience as a starter; he started all 12 games as a freshman in 2011 but started just once last year. Still, Perry's teammates have lauded his work ethic during the summer and fall.
"Even some of those days when it's real hot outside in the summer when we're doing our own workouts, guys are like, 'Ah, it's too hot,' you look out there and there's Ben Perry working," Botticelli said.
Minnesota's defensive line certainly isn't a one-man show. Hageman may draw the most attention -- from fans, media, and certainly from opposing teams -- but that's just fine with his teammates. They know what they're capable of. Now they're just waiting for their chance to prove it.
"Even in years past when the competition hasn't been as fierce, everyone's still dialed in at their top notch," Botticelli said. "Right now for camp we have four full strings of defensive tackles. . . . You hear, 'Oh, fourth string, third string.' Don't be fooled. There's a lot of talent in there."
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