W hen the Miami Herald unveiled its 2011 All-Dade County football selections, Gophers defensive end Theiren Cockran made the list, but just barely. In fact, he was only the third-most decorated member of Homestead High School’s defensive line.
Ricardo Williams made the first team, Britton Hall made the second team and Cockran was honorable mention.
Most college recruiters were drawn to Williams, who stayed home to play for the University of Miami. Hall committed to Louisiana-Lafayette. Then-Homestead coach Bobby McCray kept telling people they shouldn’t overlook Cockran.
“He played AAU basketball every summer and missed our offseason football program,” McCray said. “I got angry with him. I told him when he devoted himself to being a full-time football player, the sky’s the limit.”
McCray would know. At least 10 of his former players have reached the NFL, including his son, Bobby, who played defensive end for the Saints when they won the Super Bowl in 2010.
Cockran eventually took McCray’s advice, giving up basketball as a high school junior to help fill out his 6-6 frame. Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys took notice when he was still recruiting for Northern Illinois. One month after Claeys and head coach Jerry Kill arrived at Minnesota, they got a late commitment from Cockran, who was listed as a two-star recruit by rivals.com.
Cockran weighed 210 pounds then. But after redshirting in 2011 and coming off the bench in all 13 games last season, he’s up to 245 pounds. He’s been a first-team defensive end this spring, replacing outgoing senior D.L. Wilhite, who led the Gophers with 8.5 sacks last season.
“Last year [Cockran] ended up getting a foot injury, and it slowed him down,” Claeys said. “He worked extremely hard in the offseason to put on some weight, and his strength really jumped up. So if we keep him healthy, he should have a big year because he’s not a coward.”
Cockran needed to be separated from offensive linemen after the whistle on multiple occasions this spring, but he seems anything but a hothead off the field. He’s a computer science major and earned Academic All-Big Ten honors last fall.
“He was always an honor student, and he was a member of our 5,000 Role Models [of Excellence] Project,” McCray said. “He came from a very good home, and he’s a hard-working young man.”
Cockran said people still tell him he looks like a basketball player.
“I like that because it makes me feel like an athlete,” he said. “Right now, I’m at 245 [pounds], and I’m feeling great. So I feel like I could take easily about 20 more pounds going into the next level.”
McCray said Cockran’s speed was eye-opening in high school. The 6-5 Williams could run the 40-yard dash in 4.9 seconds, but Cockran consistently clocked in at 4.5 or 4.6.
Williams has played in only one game so far for the Hurricanes and wasn’t listed on their two-deep roster after spring practice.
“In high school, he was the bigger recruit,” Cockran said. “I just use it as motivation. I knew that one day I’d get back at him.”
Cockran had six tackles last year, including one sack. Asked how many sacks he thinks he can get with more playing time this year, he answered with words that echoed his high school coach.
“I want to get as many as I can,” he said. “I have no set number. The sky’s the limit.”