Gophers defensive line stays injury-free

The unit is one of the few that has stayed healthy so far in this season.

Defensive Lineman Hendrick Ekpe runs through the tunnel and on to the field at TCF Bank Stadium on Sept. 19. The Gophers defeated Kent State University.

Melissa Scharf / Daily File Photo

Defensive Lineman Hendrick Ekpe runs through the tunnel and on to the field at TCF Bank Stadium on Sept. 19. The Gophers defeated Kent State University.

Mike Hendrickson

The Gophers have had an injury at almost every position this year, with 20 players in non-contact jerseys during practice Wednesday.
However, one group, the defensive line, has stayed injury-free and has played well as a result.
The starting defensive line has stayed the same for the past four games, with sophomore Steven Richardson and redshirt junior Scott Ekpe at defensive tackle and junior Hank Ekpe and redshirt senior Theiran Cockran at defensive end.
This isn’t the case with the secondary, with starting cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun and starting safety Damarius Travis both having a “slim to none” chance at playing Saturday, according to head coach Jerry Kill.
“For us as a defensive line, we have our goals,” Scott Ekpe said. “The secondary is beat up, so we know that we’ve got to step it up, so we’ll do that.” 
While the defensive line has been fully available for the Gophers, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said he would like to see the unit improve on third down.
“As a team on third down, we could play a little bit better,” Claeys said. “Third and longs would help us more than the third and mediums we’re in right now — a lot of them.”
Claeys said the team needs to improve against the run as well keep opposing teams on their toes.
“The defensive line, with what we’ve faced here recently, [hasn’t] gotten a lot of people in situations where they’re playing catch-up ball,” Claeys said. “So it’s defending a lot of the run and having to do some things.”
The defense as a whole has been strong for the Gophers, as they have only allowed 20.2 points a game this season, which is tied for 36th in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The team, however, hasn’t had a turnover in three games.
Scott Ekpe said turnovers aren’t a big focus for him, but he would like to see improvements in that area.
“We just know that we have to stop them,” Scott Ekpe said. “It’s always good to force turnovers … but it’s not my main concern right now.”
As a team, the Gophers only have six sacks on the season, but Claeys said he thinks that doesn’t represent how they’ve performed.
“We’re just not getting them right now,” Claeys said. “At the same time, you can’t turn around and do things that are unsound and start giving up big plays. We’re not giving up big plays. We’re keeping the ball in front of us.”
Last week against Northwestern University, the defense allowed 20 points, and the offense allowed another seven with a fumble return for a touchdown. The offense was also shut out, but Cockran said the team hasn’t lost confidence as a result.
“You can’t rush greatness,” Cockran said. “Sometimes you’re going to stumble across some things. You’re going to have a little adversity, but that’s a part of playing football. It’s just about how you bounce back.”