Freshmen have chance to step up

Minnesota will rely on freshmen to step up against Middle Tennessee State.

Minnesota defensive lineman Cameron Botticellli celebrates after a play on Thursday evening against Eastern Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium.

Amanda Snyder

Minnesota defensive lineman Cameron Botticellli celebrates after a play on Thursday evening against Eastern Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium.

Jack Satzinger

The Gophers coaching staff has remained quiet regarding the extent of Alex Keith and Yoshoub Timms’ leg injuries suffered in Minnesota’s 42-20 win over Eastern Illinois last Thursday.

But redshirt senior defensive lineman Cameron Botticelli has been loud in the locker room, helping true freshmen prepare for Saturday’s game against Middle Tennessee State.

As a senior leader, it’s important to interact with the younger players, he said.

“You should get around those [young] guys. I have; older players have,” Botticelli said.

Junior Scott Ekpe was expected to replace Ra’Shede Hageman at defensive tackle alongside Botticelli, but he’s now out for the season with a knee injury — leaving a big hole in the middle.

“That’s a major blow,” Gophers head coach Jerry Kill said.

Without Ekpe and with Keith and Timms’ availability in doubt, the Gophers will have to rely on the freshmen trio of Steven Richardson, Andrew Stelter and Gaelin Elmore to play more snaps.

Richardson and Elmore combined for five tackles in their career debuts last week, and Stelter didn’t record any statistics.

This weekend, senior Michael Amaefula will likely start at defensive end after missing last week’s game due to injury. Redshirt junior Robert Ndondo-Lay should also see more playing time on the defensive line.

Although Botticelli praised Amaefula and redshirt junior Theiren Cockran’s collective presence at defensive end, more production from the inexperienced trio of freshmen could go a long way.

“I think they know,” Kill said. “I don’t think we have to tell them to step up.”

The Gophers like to rotate eight defensive linemen in and out of the game to keep players fresh. This strategy also gives young athletes experience.

Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said playing real snaps is the best way for blossoming linemen to improve, but teaching in the film room is an added bonus.

“At least we have a little bit of film to go off of,” Claeys said. “They’re going to get the opportunity to play.”

Botticelli said overall, the biggest thing the defensive line needs to shore up is its pad level.

Staying low up front could prove crucial going up against Middle Tennessee State’s talented backfield.

“They run a little bit of power. But they really spread the field a lot. … The backs are good,” Claeys said. “They’re going to run a lot more screens than what we saw last week. We’re going to have to make sure we have good leverage and tackle the ball.”

The Blue Raiders walloped Savannah State 61-7 on Saturday, scoring six rushing touchdowns along the way.

Middle Tennessee State is not one-dimensional, either. Sophomore quarterback Austin Grammer completed 15 of 17 passes for 250 yards in his first career start, but he could have trouble against the Gophers’ seasoned secondary.

If that happens, Middle Tennessee State might pound the ball up the gut with its running backs, challenging Minnesota’s now-youthful defensive line.

But with the help of Botticelli, it seems like the freshmen are ready for the challenge.

“The heater’s been turned up a little bit, and they know they have to perform to replace some of the guys,” he said.