If bigger is better, Gophers defense will be just fine

  • Article by: JASON GONZALEZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2014 - 12:44 AM

Theiren Cockran grew into a force who has been noticed by Big Ten foes.

The fresh 15 pounds Theiren Cockran added this offseason won’t be the only extra weight he carries this fall.

The Gophers will rely heavily on the big-bodied defensive end to fill the void left by Ra’Shede Hageman.

Cockran is comfortable with the extra load he’ll bear, starting in five days.

“I know my body can take a lot of weight,” he said. “I like the challenge [of filling Hageman’s role]. It’s just motivation to get better.”

The junior led the Gophers with 7½ sacks and led the Big Ten with four forced fumbles last season. Ten of his 30 ­tackles were for a loss, and he broke up two passes. Big Ten media recognized the big numbers with a second-team All-Big Ten nod and have him rated as one of the conference’s top players at any position heading into this season.

The accolades are starting to hint at the potential Tracy Claeys saw in a much smaller version of the Miami-area product. Claeys recruited a 210-pound Cockran in 2011 with the expectation that he would fill out nicely while maintaining above-average speed.

Each year, he’s added an average of 10 pounds. The Gophers’ roster lists him at 255, nearly a 15-pound jump from his weight last season. An exhaustive weight-training program paired with a five-meals-a-day, 5,000-calorie diet has NFL scouts taking notice.

Keeping up with this growth has its challenges, though. Most of the opening week of camp is used to help Cockran’s 6-foot-6 frame acclimate to his new size.

“When TC first came in, he looked like a defensive back. Now he’s grown into a Big Ten NFL prospect-looking defensive end,” said senior teammate Harold Legania. “I feel like most teams know who he is now and they’re going to circle him on the charts and have him in their game plan.”

Defensive line coach Jeff Phelps is expecting opponents to keep an extra set of eyes on Cockran. The special attention could open holes for defensive linemen Cameron Botticelli and Hendrick Ekpe the same way Hageman once cleared the way for Cockran.

Cockran understands the extra attention could mean giving up his All-Big Ten stats.

“If it’s less, if that’s what it takes, I have no problem with that,” Cockran said. “When guys look up to you, you gotta be an example and be able to coach them up and help them get to where you are and even better.”

Cockran answered the challenge of replacing D.L. Wilhite last season, and has taken the steps to do the same in Hageman’s absence, with the help of the Atlanta Falcons’ second-round draft pick. Hageman spent time with the Gophers linemen this summer teaching them counterattacks on offensive linemen.

“The thing with TC, I talked to him, he’s got to be able to get off the ball, the explosion part, in the fourth quarter that he does in the first half,” Claeys said. “That’s his job, and if he’s got to do extra conditioning or whatever — he’s by far the best pass rusher we have coming, and we need to leave him on the field in those pass-rush situations as much as we can.”

  • GOPHERS season opener

    6 p.m. Thursday vs. Eastern Illinois • TCF Bank Stadium • TV: BTN (107.9-FM)

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