Since he arrived with coach Jerry Kill two years ago, Minnesota Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has been waiting for what he refers to as the "bell cow" of the defensive line, a top-tier player who has the talent to serve as the critical backbone for the unit.
Claeys and the Gophers have that now in Ra'Shede Hageman.
In 2012, Hageman's first full season at defensive tackle and as a starter, the hulking 6-foot-6, 310-pound lineman began to finally match the potential that his impressive array of physical abilities had always deemed possible. On a staggeringly youthful line, Hageman provided balance inside. He shed the off-field struggles that had hampered early in his collegiate career to put together a solid season - second the team in sacks (6), 35 tackles -- that gave credence to the thought that his final year with the Gophers could be a personal showcase of sorts.
A brief flirtation with the idea of departing early for the NFL has given way to Hageman's full embrace of his role as the headlining piece of the overhaul that has occurred across the line. Hageman handled the rise in attention he garnered throughout spring with quiet acceptance. The intensely focused Minneapolis native is still slightly under four months removed from the 2013 season, when the rising expectations being heaped upon him will need to be realized. But it was clear this spring there is no one as potentially dominant and with as much NFL prospects on the "U" defense as Hageman. He is now the de facto leader of the line.
This may all seem like superfluous hype, and it very well could be. However, the Gophers as a whole have sorely lacked a clear-cut defining player as of late. Hageman is their best bet so far in the Kill era to be that player.
"He's comfortable. He's not thinking. He's strong," Kill said. This as focused as I've seen Ra'Shede since I've been here. He's doing a heck of a job."
The success of the D-line next season begins with how much of an impact Hageman can have, but the group's longevity will be defined by the development of the core the Gophers cemented a year ago. The line's relative youth made for plenty of shortcomings last season, but the upside has been the formation of legitimate depth. Of the nine defensive lineman who saw consistent playing time in 10 or more games in 2012, six were redshirt sophomores or younger, including two true freshmen (Scott Ekpe and Alex Keith). Another, Roland Johnson, was a junior college transfer in his first season. Johnson went on to play in 10 games before a torn ACL abruptly ended his year. The biggest plus for the line is that had little turnover in the offseason. Defensive end D.L. Wilhite, the Gophers' sack leader in 2012, was the only member of the line to graduate.
The Gophers' defense saw major improvements, especially in countering the pass. Their pass defense, ranked fourth in the Big Ten (186.6 ypg), was key in raising the Gophers to fifth in the conference in total defense (358.6). Stopping the run is where Minnesota continued to be glaringly vulnerable. Opponents averaged 172 rushing yards per game, with 22 of the 37 touchdowns scored against the "U" defense coming on the ground. With missed tackles a chief concern, the Gophers' lackluster linebacker crew was as much to blame, if not more, for the run stopping woes as the D-line. Strengthening the front line, however, still remains the first key to seeing opponents' success running the ball on the Gophers decrease. Where the line took a considerable step up from its 2011 state was in getting to the quarterback. In Kill and Claeys' first season, Minnesota's defensive line collected just 8.5 sacks. That number more than tripled one year later with the unit accounting for 23 of the team's 26 sacks. The Gophers are still in need of seeing their sack numbers increase, but it was notable step forward.
During the spring, the typically upfront Claeys was markedly confident when discussing the defensive line. He recognized that it is still a work in progress, but the concerns he had a year ago at this time have abated considerably. It's now a matter of building off what has been set down, instead of primarily trying just to get pieces to fit. The Gophers now have enough experienced and able bodies on the line to reasonably field solid first and second team units.
"We said we needed to get better in the defensive line and we have and we are," Kill said. "We're strong and have great speed. You win up front, so have to make s got sure we have great depth up front."
When discussing depth chart projections for the line it has to be remembered that being named a starter is somewhat of an honorary distinction in Claeys' defense as the Gophers tend to rotate guys in and out on a consistent basis. The upgrade in competition has made the distribution of playing time next season a bit more intriguing. Hageman's starting spot at defensive tackle is the only obvious lock.
"If Ra'Shede prepares and works hard every week nobody is going to beat him," Claeys said. "We don't have anyone able to beat him out. But that other one is not determined. There is lot to be determined on that other side."
Coming out of the spring, Cameron Botticelli remains the frontrunner to reclaim his slot next to Hageman. Botticelli, a former walk-on, has appeared in every game since his freshman season, starting all of 2012 at tackle. Regardless of skill level, Botticelli fits Kill's mold of a no-nonsense, grinding player, having played parts of last season with a dislocated shoulder. The Gophers have other options at tackle as well. Sophomore Scott Ekpe, on first glance in fall camp, wasn't expected to play much as a freshman, but he ended up logging time in 12 games (12 tackles). Ekpe's physical development in the last year-and-a-half -- he's put on 40 pounds in 2012 -- has left a lasting impression on the coaching staff. With some his rawness worn away, Ekpe has an opportunity to play a key role. The majority of his spring reps came with the second team defense.
"Scott has gotten good enough and improved enough that he has a chance to start in the fall. He really does," Claeys said.
Johnson's progress in his recovery from ACL surgery will decide where he fits into the rotation at tackle. Johnson, a newcomer from Butler County Community College last year, was becoming a surprise standout on the line (21 tackles, two sacks in 10 games) until he injured his knee during a walk-through prior to the Gophers' Nov. 17 game against Nebraska. All indications are that Johnson, who sat out the spring, will be cleared to return by the time training camp opens in August. If he can return without any major setbacks he can easily move back near the top of the depth chart. With Johnson sidelined, his reps were spread out to several other players vying for spots. Redshirt junior Harold Legania has played in only three games, but that could change drastically. Legania, a 308-pound tackle from New Orleans, was popular subject of praise from the coaching staff in the spring, getting a high number of snaps with the second team defense. Junior college transfer Jordan Hinojosa early enrolled with the Gophers, and in turn was rewarded with quality practice reps this spring that put him in line to break into the rotation. Redshirt freshman Yoshoub Timms, who was brought up several times by Claeys and Kill last year as a highlight of the scout team defense, is primed to shift into a back-up role as long as his abilities against the run improve.
"As far as an inside tackle for a pass rusher, he's the best one we've got," Claeys said. In nickel situations he's going to have a place, because he's learning to play the run better. He's kind of like where Ra'Shede was two years ago. He does alright against the pass, but has to learn to play the run better."
There is very little haziness in terms of the two-deep at defensive end. With Wilhite gone, redshirt Theiren Cockran is the likely successor to take over the starting vacancy. As a freshman, Cockran, a reliable presence in pass rush situations, had 12 tackles and one sack largely as a back up. It was a respectable initial season, but getting Cockran to take the next step in his progression is key for the "U" line to have success. Both Kill and Claeys were happy with Cockran's status in the spring, although they are looking for him to bump his 245-pound frame up to around 255. Opposite Cockran is junior Michael Amaefula, a 13-game starter in 2012 and a mainstay on the line throughout Kill's tenure. After a season in which he recovered two fumbles and recorded 2.5 sacks, Amaefula did nothing in the spring to hurt his status on the depth chart. Behind Amaefula and Cockran is redshirt junior Ben Perry and sophomore Alex Keith, both of whom were second team regulars in the spring. True freshman Hendrick Ekpe, younger brother of Scott, was another new face on the line this spring after choosing enroll early. Ekpe, an unpolished 6-foot-5, 251-pound end, is under consideration to take a redshirt in the season ahead, but a strong summer and a consistent showing in fall camp could keep him from sitting out the year.
"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," Claeys said in April. "And if he does what his brother and some of those guys did he'll be ready to play in some capacity."
Projected depth chart (coming out of spring practice)
DE: Michael Amaefula (Junior, 6-foot-2, 238-pounds) /Alex Keith (Sophomore, 6-3, 237)
DT: Ra'Shede Hageman (RS senior, 6-6, 311) / Scott Ekpe (Sophomore, 6-4, 281) / Yoshoub Timms (RS freshman, 6-2, 276)
DT: Cameron Botticelli (RS junior, 6-5, 290) / Roland Johnson (Senior, 6-1, 286) / Harold Legania (RS junior, 6-4, 308)
DE: Theiren Cockran (RS sophomore, 6-6, 238) / Ben Perry (RS junior, 6-5, 253)
Demaris Peppers (6-3, 270, Memphis, Tenn.)
Owen Salzwedel (6-6, 240, Beaver Dam, Wisc.)