Gophers defense specializes in mobile run-stoppers

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 2012 - 6:46 AM

The coaches like what they see in the defensive line -- big guys who aren't so large that they can't change direction in a hurry.

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Defensive linemen Ra’Shede Hageman, left, and Harold Legania drilled together on the first day of spring practice last week.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Cameron Botticelli might not know it, but his opportunity to move into the Gophers lineup at defensive tackle comes courtesy of ... Appalachian State?

In a way, yes. The walk-on from Milwaukee was only 14 when the Mountaineers marched to a Division I-AA national championship, and probably never suspected that an obscure quarterfinal score -- Appy State 38, Southern Illinois 24 -- would have an impact on his life. But it was in that game that coach Jerry Kill and his staff realized that players like Botticelli are what they need in the middle of the line.

Kill's Salukis featured "big-legged and heavy" players in the interior line, traditional oversized tackles, explained defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. "Nobody could knock us off the line of scrimmage," Claeys said. But when confronted with Appalachian State's spread offense, "We couldn't catch them," Claeys said. "It didn't matter if we [filled] our gaps or not."

Since that game, "we've changed a little bit. I would rather have a 280-pound guy in there who can run and change direction," he said. "But you need a few more bodies, because they're going to get worn down by all the pounding."

Enter Botticelli. And Austin Hahn. And Eric Jacques and even freshman-to-be Scott Ekpe, already making an impact before his high school classmates have graduated. Along with larger tackles such as Ra'Shede Hageman, Curren Delaney and Harold Legania, all are competing for those mobile run-stopper jobs left vacant by the departure of senior tackles Anthony Jacobs and Brandon Kirksey.

"We're really young, but we're really deep, and there are a lot of good things that come from that," Boticelli said. "Competition breeds success. There's like six or seven of us who are all foaming at the mouth" to earn those jobs.

Hageman is the best known and, at 6-6 and 300 pounds, the most fearsome, especially since the coaches say they see improvement with every passing day. "The first three practices, he's spent a lot of time on the other side of the ball," Kill said, meaning Hageman is forcing his way across the line of scrimmage. That's his best talent, but Claeys said the Gophers need the former Minneapolis Washburn standout tight end to learn the discipline of run containment as well. "When he learns how to," Claeys said, "he can dominate."

Last year, though, Hageman was subbed in only on passing downs. "We took him out of a lot of the running game stuff and just used him [against] the pass and let him go," Claeys said. "In the running game, you've got to be gap conscious. In the passing game ... just get to the quarterback. He used to try to play that way all the time, but he's learned the importance of the gap stuff on the run."

Meanwhile, players like Botticelli are filling the Gophers' smaller-but-mobile role with a lot of energy, the coach said. "It takes a tough dude to stand in there and play, so you've got to love the game," Claeys said. "You cannot play defensive line without loving the game, because you're going to get doubled, you're going to get held, you're going to get cut."

Like Hageman, Botticelli was an all-state player at another position; he was first-team all-Wisconsin as an outside linebacker for Marquette University High School in Milwaukee. He turned down I-AA offers to walk on at Minnesota, and was moved to defensive end. After the first practice under Kill's coaching staff last spring, he was quickly moved to tackle and given a real chance; Botticelli, who put on 30 pounds and now weighs 280, ended up appearing, albeit only for a few plays, in all 12 games.

"You always work to try and play right away, but I guess I expected to come here, sit around for a few years and get my shot later on," he said. "It's awesome that I got playing time last year, and if it's looking good [for me] in spring ball, that's awesome, too."

And it gives him a chance to put into action some of the lessons he absorbed from his now-graduated mentors: "Compete fiercely. Show up every day, whether you're having a good day or not, and do your work. And don't take [stuff] from the offensive linemen," Botticelli said with a smile. "They instilled that as doctrine."

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