Roland Johnson's return boosts Gophers defensive line

One of the 2012 highlights for Gophers defensive tackle Roland Johnson was his sack of Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib. But Johnson’s season ended after 10 games because of a torn knee ligament. “He played a lot of minutes for us, and I thought it was a pretty big blow when he got hurt,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said.

Photo: CARLOS GONZALEZ, Star Tribune file

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Roland Johnson did so much grinding in the trenches for the Gophers last season that everyone felt terrible when he blew out a knee. Especially since it happened during a walk-through practice.

Johnson, a transfer from Butler County (Kan.) Community College, played 10 games as a reserve defensive tackle behind starters Ra’Shede Hageman and Cameron Botticelli. Johnson made seven tackles and recovered a fumble in the 10th game, a 17-3 victory over Illinois.

But the next week, the Gophers were walking through a play, when a teammate accidentally rolled into Johnson’ left knee, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament. Johnson had reconstructive surgery and missed spring practice, but on Monday, he said he’s back to 100 percent.

“He played a lot of minutes for us, and I thought it was a pretty big blow when he got hurt,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “So him being healthy will help us be a better football team — certainly, stopping the run.”

With Hageman and Botticelli back, and Johnson and Scott Ekpe right behind them, the Gophers say they believe they have good depth at defensive tackle.

Hageman and Botticelli “are two great guys to follow,” Johnson said. “I love competing. It’s all about competition.”

Turnover goals

The Gophers defense produced 20 turnovers in 13 games last year, tying Michigan State for seventh most in the Big Ten. This year, the Gophers have a goal of creating 20 turnovers, just from the defensive backfield.

Sophomore cornerback Eric Murray said the coaching staff has shown the team statistics showing how turnovers correlate to wins; defenses that create the most typically win the most.

Michael Carter led last year’s team with four interceptions, followed by Derrick Wells (2), Brock Vereen (2), Cedric Thompson (2) and Martez Shabazz (1). Thompson, a junior safety, intercepted two passes in Saturday’s practice.

“I feel like my ball-hawking skills and my breaks are a lot faster, so I feel like this year, I’m going to have a lot of interceptions,” Thompson said. “Now that I get the defense, and it’s like in the back of my hand, now I can react to the ball faster.”

Praise for O’Brien

Dan O’Brien was the lone holdover from Tim Brewster’s staff when Kill took over in December 2010. Now entering his sixth season with the program, O’Brien received a promotion from director of football operations to associate athletic director for football.

“Coach O’Brien probably doesn’t get enough credit,” Kill said. “He’s probably been the rock of this program for five or six years and seen it through thick and thin. He knows a lot of people, fields a lot of calls.”

Etc.

• Wells (bruised shoulder) still wore a green noncontact jersey, but he did everything except 11-on-11 drills.

• Running back James Gillum was held out of practice because of tightness in his back.

• Offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig (knee surgery) has been limited to individual drills through the first four practices.

• Kill, on the two young kids who sang the “Minnesota Rouser’’ for the full squad after practice: “They did a good job teaching the freshmen, so they can figure it out.”

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