Hank Ekpe showed big promise as a true freshman in 2013, but a severe sinus infection left the Gophers’ defensive end with splitting headaches last March, forcing him to miss most of spring camp.
The headaches returned last fall when the weather turned cold, and he finished his sophomore season with just four tackles in the season’s final nine games. His three tackles for a loss all came in non-conference games.
“Sometimes my vision would blur after getting hit on a play,” Ekpe said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can go’ because it was really affecting my game. I didn’t want to be out there if I was hurting the team.”
Now Ekpe is healthy again, and he’s been one of the players who have impressed the coaches most through four spring practices.
“He reminds me of the two guys from Missouri,” coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday, referencing Shane Ray and Markus Golden, who combined for 42½ tackles for a loss last season. “I mean, he’s all of a sudden matured. He’s had a great offseason, and he can flat get off the ball.
“We haven’t blocked him on the pass rush yet.”
Ekpe said he’s confident the infection has been cured.
“I’m just taking medicine, things like Vitamin D to control the immune system,” he said. “[The doctors] think it’s gone now. When it gets cold, it comes back a little bit but not as bad as it was before. So I think the medicine really helps.”
Ekpe, who is now 6-5, 245 pounds, is a leading candidate to replace departing senior Michael Amaefula as a starting defensive end, opposite Theiren Cockran. And Ekpe’s older brother, Scott, is a leading candidate to replace departing senior Cameron Botticelli as a starting defensive tackle, next to Steven Richardson.
Scott Ekpe tore an ACL in last year’s season opener and is sitting out this spring while rehabbing.
“He should be back in fall camp,” Hank Ekpe said. “Everything’s been going along well.”
Scarver turning heads
Jeff Jones isn’t the only Minneapolis Washburn grad turning heads for the Gophers this spring. Noah Scarver has been catching nearly everything thrown his way as a nimble 6-5, 273-pound tight end.
Scarver graduated from Washburn in 2013 and redshirted that fall at Montana before sitting out last fall as a transfer.
“I think he wanted to get closer to home,” Kill said. “Everybody always asks me who’s been kind of a surprise in camp; he definitely has been.”
On one play Tuesday, Scarver reached up one hand for a pass and the ball appeared to stick to his glove like Velcro.
“He’s very athletic,” Kill said. “He’s got very good hands, and he’s 270 pounds and can run.”
Coaches trade ideas
Wyoming’s Craig Bohl and Minnesota State Mankato’s Todd Hoffner were among several college head coaches who attended Tuesday’s practice.
Kill said he recently returned from a Nike-sponsored trip with 19 other coaches, including Baylor’s Art Briles, TCU’s Gary Patterson, Mississippi’s Hugh Freeze, Duke’s David Cutcliffe and Oregon’s Mark Helfrich. The Gophers also had a recent visit from former Nebraska coach Bo Pelini, who is now the head coach at Youngstown State.
“Shoot, I learn a lot more from them,” Kill said of the coaching fraternity. “They sit in on meetings and share ideas. We all get yelled at every Saturday. Every five years, half of us lose our jobs. So you better be nice because you might be working for the other guy.”