Spring football camp was nearing an end, and Gophers defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli was huffing and puffing, wiping sweat from his brow.
Late in practice, Coach Jerry Kill had lined up the first-team offense against the first-team defense, with the ball at the 5-yard-line. Whichever side lost the battle had to run sprints, and the offense scored about five consecutive touchdowns.
After chugging from sideline to sideline on several sprints, the 6-5, 290-pound junior collected his breath, looking somehow fulfilled. Thursday’s season opener against UNLV was still more than four months away, but that late-April practice seemed no less important to Botticelli.
“Everyone kind of knows the joke,” he said. “The walk-on player — he’s a student of the game, a real gym rat, things like that. But I’d say it’s true. I definitely enjoy this.”
Gophers defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said he thinks the “student of the game” label sells Botticelli short.
“He’s just a blue-collar, work-his-butt-off type of guy is what he is,” Claeys said. “The kids have a lot of respect for him. He came here as a walk-on, and he came as a defensive end. We moved him [to defensive tackle] and told him to start eating. He loves the game and plays hard.”
Botticelli was part of a Wisconsin prep juggernaut at Marquette University High School in Milwaukee. The Hilltoppers went 33-5 his final three seasons, including 14-0 his senior year, when he earned all-state honors and helped win a state title.
Since then, he has added 45 pounds. After redshirting his first year at the U, he played in all 12 games in 2011, then started all 13 games last season.
“He’s a big, hard-nosed, tough defensive tackle — an old-school type guy and gives you 110 [percent] and plays hard all the time,” Kill said. “He played last year with a dislocated elbow. Not very many kids can do that. So he’s kind of a throwback.”
Last year, while defensive end D.L. Wilhite was racking up a team-high 8½ sacks, he called Botticelli the “unsung hero of the defensive line.” Botticelli wasn’t credited with a full sack all season, but by doing his job properly, filling his gap, keeping opposing linemen occupied, he freed up other tacklers to make plays.
“It’s a great compliment,” Botticelli said. “Everyone likes to be the star and the playmaker. But especially at a position like defensive tackle — there are some plays that you’re not going to make, where you’re going to eat up two blocks, so your teammates can make the play.”
Wilhite has graduated, but the Gophers return three D-line starters — Botticelli, Ra’Shede Hageman (six sacks last year) and Michael Amaefula (2½ sacks). Theiren Cockran, Wilhite’s replacement at defensive end, flashed his speed with two sacks in an Aug. 10 scrimmage.
The Gophers also feel good about this their defensive line depth, which includes a healthy Roland Johnson (two sacks last year before tearing up his knee), the hard-charging Ekpe brothers — Scott and Hendrick — and other experienced players such as Alex Keith and Ben Perry.
Hageman is the team’s biggest star, a projected top-50 NFL draft pick, but he calls Botticelli “the brains of the operation.”
Botticelli might have a future in coaching eventually.
“I graduate this fall with a degree in political science,” he said. “I start this spring on my master’s of education, and I want to go to law school after I’m done playing ball. But if the law career doesn’t work out, I’d love to be a ball coach. This wouldn’t be work for me.”