Before he chose Minnesota, Scott Ekpe was recruited by home-state schools Baylor, Houston, SMU and TCU, and while he had varying degrees of interest in all of them, he couldn't figure out the reverse. Why, Ekpe wondered, would a college football team be interested in him?
"You look at yourself on film," the freshman from Lewisville, Texas, said, "and all you see is how much better you could be doing."
Turns out, Ekpe is a better defensive tackle than a talent evaluator, because when the Gophers looked at him 17 months ago, they saw a Big Ten talent, a relentless battering ram for the interior of the line.
Coach Jerry Kill said "he's a lot like Ra'Shede," as in Hageman, the 6-6, 300-pound tackle whom Ekpe plays alongside. "When Ra'Shede hits you, he's got a lot of pop. Scott's the same way -- he's got a lot of fast-twitch in him. When he hits you, it snaps you. He's got natural strength."
And way more now than before. Ekpe arrived in Minnesota last January, still 17 years old and all of 245 pounds, a virtual certainty to redshirt while he grew to a size more appropriate to his new responsibilities. But the Texan impressed his coaches with some high-energy play in spring ball, then surprised them by putting on almost 40 pounds in eight months.
The weight made Gophers coaches reconsider their plans. His athleticism convinced them that Ekpe was ready right now.
"He just outplayed everybody," Kill said.
Those deliberations were all a secret to the teenager.
"To be honest, I didn't expect to play," Ekpe said. "Then Coach Kill came to talk to me and said, 'You're not here for a showcase tour. Get your mind right.' So I got my mind right."
His arms and legs, too. Rotating in and out of the game for several plays at a time, Ekpe displayed his athleticism with a couple of tackles, both against UNLV tailback Tim Cornett. He helped linebacker Mike Rallis keep the speedy back out of the end zone on a second-and-goal from the 2 in the third quarter, then made a nice solo tackle on Cornett in the fourth quarter to prevent a big gain.
"We were running a slant, and I saw [Cornett] cross on the other side. So I started working back toward him," Ekpe said. "I have long arms, so I worked back enough to just reach him. It was a lot of fun."
So was the film session a few days after the game, when Ekpe, normally a harsh critic of his own play, noticed something strange: He was pretty good.
"I watched the film, and I was surprised. There were a few things here and there [to work on], but that's always the case," Ekpe said. "My first play, I didn't know what to expect. We've been doing working since January, but all of a sudden you go into the game, and you realize, 'I don't know. I don't know what's going to happen.'"
What was his personal highlight from the Gophers' victory?
"Everything after that first play," Ekpe deadpanned.
Still, Ekpe said he has several details to work on this week, especially now that he knows that he'll play this season. He'll also have a bigger audience, since his parents are coming to Minneapolis this month, along with his brother Hendrick -- a defensive end who already has drawn scholarship offers from Iowa, Northwestern, a handful of Texas and Oklahoma schools, and the Gophers.
That, and the Gophers' high expectations -- Kill projects Ekpe to reach 300 pounds eventually -- will keep the teenager focused on getting better, whether he knows it or not.
"Scott is a humble kid," Kill said. "He's never going to take credit for anything."
Well, maybe on most topics. But one recruiting website rates Hendrick Ekpe a better prospect than his older brother. So, Scott, who's the better player?
"Oh, me, of course," Ekpe said with a laugh. "Easily."
Modesty has its limits.