Breaking down the Gophers DL: Hageman crucial to unit's success
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Each Tuesday and Thursday until the Gophers football team opens fall camp on Aug. 2, 1500ESPN.com's Nate Sandell breaks down the "U" roster position-by-position, with input from conversations with coach Jerry Kill, as well as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
On the roster
• Ra'Shede Hageman -- RS Junior, 6-foot-6, 300 pounds, Minneapolis.
• Cameron Botticelli -- RS Sophomore, 6-5, 280, Milwaukee, Wis.
• Michael Amaefula -- Sophomore, 6-2, 245, Arlington, Texas
• Thieren Cockran -- RS Freshman, 6-6, 235, Homestead, Fla.
• D.L. Wilhite -- RS Senior, 6-3, 250, Lexington, Ky.
• Ben Perry -- RS Sophomore, 6-5, 245, Southlake, Texas
• Harold Legania -- RS Sophomore, 6-4, 300, New Orleans, La.
• Matt Garin -- RS Junior, 6-4, 250, Apple Valley, Minn.
• Roland Johnson -- Junior, JUCO, 6-1, 295, Camden, S.C.
• Eric Jacques -- RS Junior, 6-2, 290, Pompano Beach, Fla.
• Austin Hahn -- RS Senior, 6-4, 270, Hartford, Wis.
• Scott Ekpe - Freshman, 6-4, 275, Lewisville, Texas
• Curran Delaney -- RS Senior, 6-1, 300, Waconia, Minn.
• Gavin Bronson -- RS Freshman, 6-4, 245, Burnsville, Minn.
• Yoshoub Timms -- Freshman, 6-2, 265, Fort Walton Beach, Fla.
• Alex Keith -- Freshman, 6-3, 230, Columbia, Mo.
• Tyler Hartmann -- Freshman, 6-3, 245, Andover, Minn.
• David Stommes -- RS Junior, 6-4, 245, Eden Valley, Minn.
• Brandon Kirksey -- A two-year starter, Kirksey was the leader of the line in 2011. He tallied 19 tackles last season at nose tackle and was named the Gophers' defensive lineman of the year.
• Anthony Jacobs -- Owner of 93 career tackles, Jacobs started 26 games at defensive tackle in his four years with the Gophers, including all 12 games in 2011. His 26 tackles last season were the most of any player on the D-line.
The Gophers defense has been among the Big Ten's worst for the past two seasons, which makes second-year defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys' job of restructuring and overhauling the unit an unenviable one. Ranked 10th in the Big Ten in total defense last season, the Gophers surrendered 403.1 yards per game. Only Indiana allowed opponents to post more rushing yards per game, on average, than Minnesota's 186.4 mark.
Claeys' attempt at fixing the glut of issues that have hindered the defense he took over last season begins with the defensive line. As with nearly every position group throughout the roster, the defensive line suffered from a dearth of options in 2011. For the most part, Claeys stuck with the same starting four throughout the season -- Perry and Wilhite on the ends, Jacobs and Kirksey inside -- mainly because there was little else to select from. Nine players logged time on the line, including a pair of redshirt freshmen, Perry and Botticelli, and one true freshman, Amaefula.
However, Claeys is banking that his defense will begin to reap the benefits this season from the necessity of having to use such a youthful group. Seven players return to the line with playing time in at least eight games last season. Coach Jerry Kill and his staff have made injecting speed into the defense their top priority. Even with a slightly undersized line, Claeys showed with the combinations he used in the spring that he is targeting guys with the ability to move in space quickly.
The Gophers are focusing their attention strongly on getting increased pressure on the quarterback and levying more resources towards stopping the run. Sacks have been few and far between for the Gophers in the last two seasons. After an FBS-worst nine sacks in 2010, the "U" bumped its total to 19 last year, with the defensive line accounting for 8½ of them. That still only upped them to 10th in the Big Ten and tied for 86th in the nation.
While fall camp will sort out a couple loose ends, the Gophers already have a strong idea of whom they envision as their core group. Claeys has expressed little hesitation in fielding a unit that will feature an assortment of freshmen and sophomores. Instead, he is confident the line has the tools to see a jump in production -- fans just might want to have a roster near by.
"I really believe we've got to get to where we can rotate eight guys in and out and I think we're close to doing that, with the kids we added this summer," Claeys said during an interview with 1500ESPN.com in June.
"I know that's a big concern according to other people, but quite frankly, it's the least of my concerns. I think we'll be able to put eight people out there, keep fresh bodies out there who will be able to get done what we're asking them to get done. Not everybody is going to know who they are, but I do think that group will play much more consistent and we'll be able to roll many more people in there that I think it'll pay dividends."
Wilhite is the most seasoned member of the group (35 games played in three seasons), but the Gophers will be looking towards Hageman to be the team's anchor and leader up front.
Since he was recruited out of Minneapolis' Washburn High School in 2009 by former coach Tim Brewster, Hageman has been subjected to a stream of hype. But three years into his stay on campus, that potential hasn't led to reliable results. After switching from his original position at tight end to defensive end and eventually to defensive tackle, Hageman is only now settling into a situation in which he is comfortable. With an athletic skill set to go with his intimidating frame, Hageman possesses the most pro potential of anyone on the Gophers defense. Unlocking those signs of promise, as well as the mental aspects of the position, at game time remains a sizable task for Claeys and defensive line coach Jeff Phelps.
The fundamentals and maturity required to play at the Big Ten level finally started to blossom within Hageman towards the end of last season after the Gophers slightly streamlined the defense for him, having him focus mainly on pursuing the quarterback. The changes worked. Twelve of Hageman's 13 tackles on the year came in the last six games. He turned out the best performance of his career in the season finale against Illinois with a pair of sacks and a hit that caused Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase to cough up the ball.
"At the end of the year, we basically played Ra'Shede in nickel stuff," Claeys said. "The reason behind that was to get him to learn to get off the ball all the time just like that, whether it's nickel or not, and he learned that and it really carried over to the spring. He's a problem. You put him in the gap up front at 300 pounds and the way he can run, he keeps his feet moving and how strong he is, he is a problem.
"I can tell you by the way he played in spring was no comparison to how he played last fall. He's learned the position. He knows what's expected of him. He has the opportunity to have a tremendous year. I think he will. I really do. It showed."
Hageman's quiet and reserved demeanor makes him more of a lead-by-example style of player. If his maturity both on the field and off it continues at its recent rapid pace, the redshirt junior can be the line's top gun and the starting point for the development of the entire unit. Lining up next to him at tackle will likely be Boticelli or Legania. Claeys used both frequently during the spring without any notable setbacks.
Botticelli, a redshirt sophomore who added almost 15 pounds in the offseason, appeared as a backup in all 12 games last year. Along with his upgraded size, Botticelli's agility and quickness fits the Gophers' call for speed. Legania entered the spring as an underdog at tackle, but by April, the redshirt freshman had turned some heads with his progression and will factor into the competition for playing time. The 20-year-old has the build befitting of the position. It is now a matter of when or if his technical abilities will catch up.
Johnson, brought in from Butler County Community College, will have a chance to inject himself into the mix at tackle right away. Recruited primarily for his burst off the line and experience at the junior college level, Johnson will have to prove himself in fall camp after he was unable to enroll until this summer. Jacques can fit into a reserve role if he can stay healthy. Hindered by an ankle injury for the latter half of his sophomore season, he assisted on four tackles in seven games. True freshmen Ekpe and Timms will get chances in practice to make an impression. Ekpe, given that he joined the team for spring practice, enters the fall ahead of Timms. If Claeys decides to use either player in their first year on campus, Ekpe appears to be the probable candidate as Timms is likely to be redshirted.
The D-line's biggest source of competition will come on the ends. Perry started all 12 games on one side in 2011, while Wilhite shared playing time sporadically with Amaefula on the other. As Claeys has indicated, Perry and Wilhite could and likely will be dethroned from their starting spots. Cockran has thrust himself into the discussion after a strong spring and enters the fall near the top of the depth chart. He measures in with Hageman the as tallest members of the line at 6-foot-6 and is tracking upwards developmentally in the swift fashion the coaching staff expected from him when he was redshirted last season. Amaefula was impressive as a true freshman, finishing the year with 17 tackles (five solo, 12 assisted) and 1½ sacks. He didn't lose any traction in the spring as he spent the majority of the 15 practices fostering increasing chemistry with Cockran on the first team defense.
"Sometimes kids get to play as freshmen and then they don't develop a whole lot more, because they just take it for granted that they're going to play," Claeys said. "That kid has worked his butt off in the weight room and he's better and better."
Perry and Wilhite will battle with Cockran and Amaefula for playing time in fall camp and into the season -- a product of the upgrade in depth that has improved the coaching staff's comfort level with the defensive line. Though Matt Garin has fallen short of expectations since he arrived at the "U" in 2009, he has an opportunity to put past struggles with injuries and consistency behind him. Garin is on track to be part the rotation at defensive end in the fifth spot. A true freshman from Hickman High School in Missouri, Keith is an available option, but there is enough depth in front of him to warrant a redshirt. Two of the line's three seniors, Delaney and Hahn, did not see the field in 2011 and are long shots again this season.
Jerry Kill's take on ... Ra'Shede Hageman
"I don't think there will be anybody in the Big Ten that's more talented than what Ra'Shede is. He just had to learn what to do and learn how to play the game a little bit. And he's certainly done that through the spring. I think he can be a real force this next year. He's just got to continue to learn and stay focused on what he's doing. For us to be good on defense, he's going to have to have a great year and we certainly anticipate him having that."
Claeys has made it clear he isn't expecting the defensive line to reach the level he desires until Year 3. And that remains the reality entering the season. The Gophers will still struggle to match up on the front lines with their upper-echelon Big Ten opponents - Nebraska, Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State. Talent unquestionably exists within the group, starting with Hageman, but many of those players are in the first half of their careers and have yet to prove they can produce on a game-to-game basis. If Cockran and Amaefula start on the ends as projected, they will have to be given a layer of leeway in anticipation of the ups and downs likely to occur with two 19-year-olds who continue to adapt to the Big Ten style of play. Having the skilled duo log significant playing time could be highly beneficial in the long run. The added depth at the Gophers' disposal will allow Claeys to be more aggressive with his play calling and aid in a more reliable reserve rotation.
Position-by-position series recap
Day 1: Quarterbacks -- MarQueis Gray headed for a 'breakout year?'
Day 2: Running backs -- James Gillum makes bid for top spot
Day 3: Wide receivers -- Search is on for a go-to threat
Day 4: Tight ends -- Is John Rabe the offense's 'secret weapon?'
Day 5: Offensive line -- Ed Olson set to lead developing group