Gophers' Scott Ekpe key part of budding depth across the D-line
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Days before the Minnesota Gophers boarded a plane for their 2012 season opener at UNLV, Scott Ekpe received word he would be traveling with the team.
The humble defensive tackle was flattered by the move but truly didn't think it was anything more than an attempt to fill out the 70-man travel roster. Even as the team prepped for the game in a nearby Las Vegas hotel, Ekpe didn't think he was likely to see any playing time being a freshman seemingly on the bottom half of the depth chart.
He told this to friend and starting tackle Cameron Botticelli, who looked at his teammate startled and replied, "No, you're going to play."
Defensive line coach Jeff Phelps confirmed Ekpe wasn't going to just stand idly by on the sideline.
"Coach Phelps said you're not here for a showcase tour. I was surprised, I'll be honest with you," Ekpe said with a smile after a recent Gophers spring practice, discussing a moment his coaches and teammates still bring up.
Not only did Ekpe go on to record two tackles in his collegiate debut in an overtime victory against UNLV, he also went on to play in the Gophers' remaining 12 games last season, serving as a primary backup at tackle.
Before making the decision to use Ekpe as a freshman, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys was close to redshirting the Lewisville, Texas native. The Gophers' D-line was already significantly youthful and still without a clear identity.
But after seeing him come into fall camp 40 pounds heavier, Claeys chose to gamble that Ekpe could handle developing in the grind of a true freshman season. Though his pass rushing skills were lacking at times, Ekpe was a satisfiable, physical presence when the Gophers needed him to be. He finished 14 tackles, including four of which were for losses.
One year later, Ekpe, who was one of seven regulars on the defensive line last year who were redshirt sophomores or younger, is now part of a critical layer of depth that has begun to form across the line.
With the unit losing only two players, D.L. Wilhite and Eric Jacques, the Gophers have an opportunity to see another step up in production from their defensive frontlines.
The D-line had its share of struggles in 2012, especially in stopping the run, but it gradually strengthened as the year progressed. Twenty-three of the Gophers' 26 sacks came from the D-line -- a notable increase when one considers the group had only 8.5 sacks one year earlier. The line also accounted for 189 tackles and five fumble recoveries, including one by Ekpe against Syracuse that killed what proved to be the Orange's last chance at getting back into the game.
As a tackle, Ekpe benefited from playing alongside the Gophers' key defensive standout, Ra'Shede Hageman, who is the imposing 6-foot-6, 311-pound pillar of the D-line.
"When I was coming up I had the older guys like (Brandon Kirksey) and (Anthony Jacobs) to look up to," Hageman said, describing his relationship with the often reserved Ekpe. "I kind of took Scott under my wing. Obviously he's made an impact. It's either me or him setting the tempo for the team ... On the field, you don't really want to tackle with him. Off the field, you'd never know he played football."
As the Gophers approach their final week of spring practice, Ekpe's role in the D-line rotation next season remains a question. Besides Hageman's starting spot, which Claeys reiterated "nobody is going to beat him" out of, playing time up front is likely to remain open for bidding throughout fall camp.
Regardless, Botticelli is the obvious pick to start next to Hageman. In three seasons, the redshirt junior has risen from walk-on status to starting all 13 games in 2012. Usurping Botticelli from that spot will be difficult, but Claeys won't discount Ekpe's opportunity to start.
"He's got a chance to start. There's no question," Claeys said. "There is lot to be determined on that other side. Scott has gotten good enough and improved enough that he has a chance to start in the fall. He really does."
Ekpe has been taking the majority of his reps with the second team defense with redshirt junior Harold Legania, next to him in the other tackle slot and Ben Perry and Alex Keith positioned on the ends. The perceived "first team" consists of Thieren Cockran and Michael Amaefula at defensive end, and Hageman and Botticelli inside.
Scott is not the only Ekpe on the team now. His younger brother, Hendrick, chose to forgo his final high school semester and early enroll at the University of Minnesota in January. Like his brother was when he arrived last year, the younger Ekpe is still very raw and slightly undersized (251-pounds) for his 6-foot-5 frame.
Hendrick could be a prime candidate to be redshirted next season, but with his older brother's progression as a benchmark, the Gophers will hold off on any long-term decisions.
"Is he ready to play? No, he's not," Claeys said. "If I had to say today, I'd say we'll redshirt him, but I'm not going to say that because he'll have all summer. And if he does what his brother and some of those guys did he'll be ready to play in some capacity."
Spring practice notes
• Three practices remain until the Gophers conclude the spring next Saturday in their annual spring game at TCF Bank Stadium. The long-range forecast is calling for temperatures that actually resemble the current season, but with snow still on the ground the Gophers aren't likely to practice outside until then. A scrimmage is slated during practice this Saturday at the team's indoor facility.
• The injuries and the flu outbreak that started to surface throughout the team last week haven't dissipated. The Gophers' injury list continues to grow.
"We're headed in the other direction (injury-wise), but that's pretty much how spring ball goes," coach Jerry Kill said.
Senior running back James Gillum was knocked out of last Saturday's scrimmage with a right knee injury. He is not expected to return to this spring. Junior wide receiver Devin Crawford Tufts has been sidelined in an orange non-contact jersey and was seen earlier in the week with a walking boot over his foot.
No position group has been hindered more by injuries than the offensive line -- a common refrain in the last year. Center Brian Bobek has been out for more than a week due to illness. Jon Christenson, who Bobek is competing with for the starting center role, is also out with an ankle injury. Bobek and Christenson are two of five offensive lineman currently shelved -- Ed Olson (ankle), Zach Mottla (broken leg) and Jonah Pirsig (knee).
To fill the openings, the Gophers have shifted utility lineman Zac Epping back from guard to center. Redshirt sophomore and newly established center Ernie Heifort has also seen a significant jump in his reps.
"Ernie, all of sudden he's been thrown into the mix, because the other two are out," Kill said. "That's happened during the season the last two years I've been here. The great thing is that Ernie is getting a lot of reps and he's going to get better."
After missing time with the flu, cornerback Jeremy Baltazar returned to practice Thursday. Sophomore Eric Murray has taken on the bulk of the first team reps in Baltazar's absence. Saturday's scrimmage may reveal if Murray will hold on to his spot or yield to Baltazar.