March 5, 2014
Minnesota lost some bulk in the middle of its defensive line with the graduation of starter Ra'Shede Hageman and reserve Roland Johnson. We talked with defensive line coach Jeff Phelps to see what the team's plan is moving forward with the defense line.
GopherSports: A common question since the end of last season is how are the Gophers going to replace Ra'Shede Hageman? Before we get to that, tell us what Minnesota is losing with Hageman's graduation.
Jeff Phelps: You are losing a great player and a physical presence on the inside that commands double teams. He made offenses think differently about what they were going to do. You also are losing some senior leadership there, a person who got the group going and got everyone hyped up for practices and games.
GS: Could you talk about Roland Johnson's departure as well?
JP: In Roland, you had a guy who had built-in leverage with strength and power. We are losing those two guys, but have Cameron Botticelli and Scott Ekpe coming back so they will kind of lead the group. Then you add in guys like Demaris Peppers, Harold Legania and Yoshoub Timms and you try to get everything sorted out. You have to figure out who is going to be three, four and five out of the spring and see who will be leading us in the summer workouts and fall camp.
It's a program and we have been building it. We have guys who have played and those guys will have to step up into that roll. Of course you do not replace a Ra'Shede but you hope with recruiting and development that you have some guys who will be able to step up and help the team.
GS: You mentioned Peppers, who redshirted last year. Tell us about his style of play.
JP: Peppers is kind of in the middle of Ra'Shede and Roland. He is not as tall as Ra'Shede, but is not as short as Roland. He is probably in the ideal height that you like a defensive lineman to be in and is probably right around 290 pounds. He is a redshirt guy, so the spring will be important for him to show us what he can do. Coming out of high school he was an athletic young man who could run really well. He is extremely passionate about the game of football. We feel that he will be able to step in and rotate in and out. That is what we have been doing and that is what we will always do. It is what we have hung our hat on and we hope that the system continues to work as we move forward.
GS: And what about Timms and Legania?
JP: Timms is a little bit older. He redshirted when we first got here. He saw some limited action last year, so he has been able to develop. He has been working hard and is looking forward to getting out there on the field and show what he can do. He is really kind of a hybrid. We have used him at defensive tackle and we have flipped him out there at the end. He is athletic enough to do that. But now I think we can sink out teeth into him playing some defensive tackle for us.
Harold is an older guy who has seen limited action, so it will be interesting to see how he does here in the spring. That is the great thing about the spring. Everyone kind of starts over and is on the same level. You have to battle and compete to see what guys will rise to the top. Obviously, the guys who have played have a little more confidence going into it. They have worked their way up the ladder a little bit. Of course, the other guys are hungry to get out there and establish themselves. Once we get to the fall, we will add some true freshman and one or two of them might have to step in and play for us. That will still be determined. But here in the spring, it is really an opportunity for the guys who have been here to show us what they can do.
GS: You said Hageman was a guy who would get everyone hyped up before games or practices. Who do you see doing that now?
JP: Surprisingly, I think it might be Hendrick Ekpe. Hank kind of broke out of his shell this past fall. When he first got here a year ago, you could not get him to say two words. In the fall, he started to get more comfortable with his role on the team and his confidence and personality really started to show. He is a rah-rah guy and likes to get the guys going. He did a couple of the breakdowns at our Friday practices. We are thinking he might be one of the guys who steps into that role, but it will really be a group of guys who lead by example and we are looking forward to seeing that. Botticelli will be a good leader for us. Scott Ekpe is a quiet guy, but he will lead by example. Theiren Cockran and Michael Amaefula are both lead by example kind of guys. That leaves maybe Hank to be the voice of the group, but everyone will work hard together to get the job done.
GS: You have mentioned Botticelli a few times now. He is a senior who has played a lot of games, but never really seems to get the attention he deserves.
JP: That is really who Botticelli is. You look at his background and being a walk-on player who had to earn his scholarship. He kept fighting and crawling to do everything that he had to do to be successful both on the field and in the classroom. I think he just wants to come to work with his hard hat on and his lunch pail and get the job done. He also wants to help his teammates out. He is a player who will teach a younger guy his job, and teach him everything he knows, knowing that that guy could take his spot. But then his hard work and attitude will step in and he will continue to do what he is doing to make sure he stays in that starting position. That is where you feel confident with guys like Peppers, Timms, Legania and when we get Steven Richardson and Gary Moore here they will be able to gravitate toward him and learn from him. It depends if Andrew Stelter is inside as well, but he will be around Botticelli and Botticelli will be able to teach those guys the Minnesota way. You have to work hard all the time and you have to play with your pads and not with your mouth. A guy like that brings a lot of value to the table.
GS: Let's talk about your defensive ends. Guys like Amaefula and Cockran have been here for a few years now. What do they use the spring for?
JP: They are working to get better at their skill set. They know the defense. It is what they have been doing the last three years they have been here. It is now year four and they feel good about it. Now they have to work on fine-tuning everything. For example, the pass rush. As a group, defense and as a team we have to get better at it. We need to get pressure with the four down lineman. I think we relied on blitzing a little bit too much last year. The year before we did not have to rely on the blitz as much and we have to get back to that. You have Amaefula and Cockran being the older guys in that mix and they have played a lot of downs for us. You add in Hank and Alex Keith as well. Hank is developing into a great pass rusher who has speed and strength, so it will be interesting to see how they do. You continue to go down the line. Ben Perry has played a lot of football and the one thing you know about Ben is that he is going to be where he needs to be. He can help those younger guys out. Then you have Robert Ndondo-Lay. He had to sit out last year because of NCAA transfer rules, but he was able to practice and learn what we do. He is now hungry for that opportunity to step out there. Don't be surprised if you see him out there.
GS: We imagine you are expecting a smooth spring practice since everyone has been here before?
JP: I think so. Now you are going into year four of the program and we are going to run our defense. We are who we are. We are not teaching a bunch of guys how to line up in our defense. They already know that. You can start to progress earlier. We did not have any mid-year transfers like we have had in the past, so there is not that one guy who doesn't know anything when everybody else is kind of further along. We can jump right in.
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