Scott Ekpe was one reason the Gophers believed they could succeed along the defensive line this year, even with Ra’Shede Hageman playing for the Atlanta Falcons.
But there were indications Friday that Ekpe, a starting defensive tackle, suffered a potential season-ending knee injury early in Thursday’s season-opening victory over Eastern Illinois.
Coach Jerry Kill didn’t give specifics when he met with the media Friday afternoon, but he confirmed the junior was one of three defensive linemen undergoing MRI exams.
Defensive end Alex Keith had a breakout performance Thursday — with a sack, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries — before injuring his left knee in the third quarter. Reserve defensive tackle Yoshoub Timms also suffered an apparent left ankle injury in the first quarter.
Those injuries tempered the Gophers’ enthusiasm after the 42-20 victory. It otherwise had been a pretty good night. Mitch Leidner shook off some early jitters, throwing for one touchdown and rushing for two others. Berkley Edwards ran for two touchdowns, including a 42-yarder, in his college debut.
The biggest bright spot was the defense. Eastern Illinois had to replace record-setting quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, but the Panthers led the Football Championship Subdivision in scoring last year, averaging 48.2 points per game.
With their linebackers swarming the field and their secondary breaking up several key passes, the Gophers looked headed for their first shutout since 2006. It was 35-0 in the fourth quarter before the Panthers scored on their final three drives, playing mostly against Minnesota’s backups.
But it’ll be tougher playing this well defensively, especially against tougher competition, if the Gophers keep getting banged up. They might be able to compensate without Ekpe in their next game, against Middle Tennessee State on Sept. 6, but his size (6-4, 293 pounds) and experience would really be missed in November against the Big Ten heavyweights.
“You can’t lose any front-line players and be where you need to be,” Kill said. “You can have all the depth in the world, but then you get less depth. To be successful, you’ve got to stay healthy. You’ve got to be lucky, so hopefully we’ll get lucky on this deal. We’ll have to see.”
The Gophers entered the season needing to replace two of their top four defensive tackles, with Hageman and Roland Johnson graduating.
Cameron Botticelli is back at one starting spot, and he looks poised for a big senior year. He got a sack Thursday, dropping Eastern Illinois running back Jalen Whitlow for an 8-yard loss, and added two other tackles.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys praises Botticelli for constantly filling the right gap, allowing others to make plays. Ekpe has that same knack, but he appeared to twist his knee on Eastern Illinois’ second play from scrimmage.
Suddenly, the Gophers had true freshman Steven Richardson lined up next to Botticelli. It looks like that will be the starting defensive tackle combo the rest of the season.
Kill has been raving about Richardson since signing day. Listed at 6-foot, 291 pounds, Richardson is notably short, but he keeps a low pad level, gains leverage and has surprising quickness. Richardson had three tackles in his debut, including a sack that he shared with linebacker Damien Wilson.
But the real question now is depth. Claeys likes to rotate eight defensive linemen to keep their legs fresh. Besides Richardson, two other true freshmen — Andrew Stelter and Gaelin Elmore — saw extensive time on the D-line Thursday, as did Robert Ndondo-Lay, a junior who transferred from Winona State.
The Gophers have Theiren Cockran (7½ sacks last year) starting at one defensive end and Michael Amaefula starting at the other. Ekpe’s brother, Hank, is a second-team defensive end who delivered five tackles Thursday. Amaefula didn’t play, but Kill said he’ll be back to face Middle Tennessee.
With Amaefula out, Keith got his first career start Thursday and kept making the highlight reel. In the third quarter, Eastern Illinois was poised to score, but Keith raced to the sideline, ripped the ball from a Panthers receiver with his right arm and recovered it with his left arm.
Keith is a 6-3 junior who weighs close to 250 pounds, up from 235 last year.
“Kid is mature,” Kill said. “I would say he’s the David Cobb of the defense. He’s matured. I just hope he’s OK.”
Cobb was hidden on the bench his first two years with the Gophers before emerging with a 1,200-yard rushing season last year, so that’s high praise. And that explains why Kill was holding his breath, waiting for those MRI results.