It's time for our upgrade/downgrade positional preview for the defensive line, and it comes down to one simple question: how good do you think junior behemoth DT Ra'Shede Hageman can be? Last year's defensive line was below average. If you've watched Gopher football much, that's par for the course. I was trying to think of the last great defensive line the Gophers have had, and I couldn't come up with one (Those of you who were around during the Glory Era in the 1960's and before can probably rattle off the names of some of the guys whose numbers have been retired). 2008 had our last outstanding performer from a defensive linemen, as DE Willie VanDeSteeg had 10.5 sacks and 19 TFL. The defense as a whole had 34 sacks, 87 TFL and 15 picks. From the "I wish I were kidding" department, in three seasons COMBINED since 2008 the defense has totalled just 50 sacks (an average of barely 16 per season) and 27 picks, an average of just nine per year. Despite good sack and turnover numbers, that 2008 group was pretty much below average against the run (allowing 4.1 ypc), and still gave up plenty of yardage through the air against the pass. VanDeSteeg was the standout, as was a guy like Karon Riley years back as a pass-rushing end, but those guys are few and far between in recent Gopher history.
And if outstanding DE's are few and far between, then a standout defensive tackle has been practically non-existent. Go ahead, name a great defensive tackle the Gophers have had in the past, oh, 20 years...now that you've come up with nothing, try just a good DT...mmm hmmm, that's what I came up with too. Bubkis (not to be confused with Butkis), zilch, zero, nada. Sure we've had some solid DT's through the years, but dominant? Good? Even better than league average? We just have not seen it happen no matter who was coaching the Maroon and Gold. When GN polled some of us to put together a Gopher all-decade team for the 2000's, defensive tackle was the position I had the hardest time coming up with. Quick, off the top of your head, name the two best DT's from 2000-2010. Don't worry, for the eight of us that voted, I don't think we could have done it either. I can't even remember who my votes were, but the panel came up with Darrell Reid and Anthony Montgomery, and neither were unanimous picks (that's a pretty interesting list of players. VanDeSteeg and Riley were the obvious choice at ends, I remember I struggled with LB's, as Lee Campbell was the only unanimous selection. GN may or may not have been the only voter to pick Adam Weber as the QB).
Last year, the d-tackles, and d-line in general, were seemingly no different from previous seasons as the effort and productivity were both disappointing (as we said with the DB's, this is the result of a Cosgroved defense and not DC Tracy Claeys). Both starting tackles were seniors and more was expected of Anthony Jacobs, who finished with just 26 total tackles, 6 TFL and one lowly sack, and especially Brandon Kirksey, who had just 19 tackles one TFL and zero sacks. Hageman, or Bane (his teammates have dubbed his new facemask his "Bane mask" from the latest Batman movie) or Optimus Prime or whatever you'd like to call him, was still learning the position and despite less playing time than the other two managed 3.5 TFL and 2 sacks, but even those aren't very impressive numbers. Different schemes ask their DT's to do different things, but no matter what your defense is asking to you to do, I'm guessing it's going to want better production than 10.5 TFL and 3 sacks from your the rotation of your top 3.
The ends were no better, as DL Wilhite "led' (using that term VERY loosely) the group with 3 TFL and 3 sacks, and he didn't even start the whole year because of a lack of production and effort. It's no wonder, then, that the defense totaled just 19 sacks and a pathetic 4 picks and forced just 8 fumbles, recovering only 5; if your defensive line isn't getting any push to either disrupt the ball carrier or pressure the quarterback, it doesn't matter how good the back seven are, they're going to have a tough time. And for most of the season, the defense did.
But 2012 could be the year we finally see a better, more productive, and dare I say disruptive defensive line, and it falls on the massive shoulders of one Ra'Shede-Bane-Optimus Prime-Hageman...If you're not familiar with Hageman's story, let's get you up to speed. He was a three or four star recruit out of Washburn high as a tight end, and was generally regarded as one of the 10 best players at that position in the entire country (longtime evaluator Tom Lemming even had him #1). He played in the Under Armor All-American game, was recruited by a bunch of big schools, but decided to stay home and Play4Brew. As a big kid with good wheels and hands, and a lot of athleticism for an 18 year old who was already 6'6 and 235 pounds, we thought he may play right away, but in a rare good decision, Brew redshirted him in 2009. During that redshirt year, the coaches made him switch to the defensive line, which at the time was a little puzzling since the team wasn't exactly awash in great tight ends. Still, as a freshman he played a few games at DE weighing close to 290, then was moved inside last year by Claeys and the new coaching staff as he approached 300 pounds.
And here's the thing- it's not a fat, Gilbert Brown-type of 300 pounds (ok so Gilbert was 400+ but you get the idea)- the kid just kept growing and developing, and as you've heard anyone who's seen him this season say, he looks like he's carved out of granite. Hageman is just MASSIVE. A couple of weeks ago Claeys, who is prone to neither hype nor hyperbole, said there wasn't a better athlete in the country playing defensive tackle than Ra'Shede. FBT has dubbed him Optimus Prime, and if Hageman really is a robot from outer space who has come to save humanity from the Decipticons (and Iowa fans), it wouldn't surprise me.
So there's really no point in sugar-coating it: Ra'Shede is not just the key to having a good d-line this season, he's the key to having a good defense. IF he can become the first defensive tackle Minnesota has had in eons to command a double-team and cause opposing offensive coordinators sleepless nights, that makes everybody else better. Much better. If he can't, then it's likely the d-line struggles to disrupt running lanes and put pressure on the quarterback, and the results for the Gopher defense will look a lot like the past, oh, forever.
And at least for the defensive line, if this group wants to be better, they need Ra'Shede to help them because this group is very young, and we're still not sure if they're very good. So far in camp the three guys rotating in beside Hageman on the inside have been RS Jr Eric Jacques, RS Soph Cameron Botticelli, and JUCO transfer Roland Johnson. The almost 300 pound Jacques saw action in seven games last season, but according to his profile he didn't see action after the Nebraska game when the team finally started to turn it around. Whatever that was about he's pushing for time now but by no means has a starting spot locked down. Botticelli played in all 12 games last year, and while his numbers weren't great, the coaches appear to like his motor and potential. He'll be in the rotation, but the guy to watch could be JUCO transfer Roland Johnson, who definitely wasn't brought in to redshirt or ride pine. At almost 300 pounds he carries a rep as a run stuffer, and hopefully someone who can cause problems for the opposition's running game and keep blockers off the linebackers. Claeys likes to rotate his line, so expect all three to see playing time in the opener against Vegas.
On the outside, there's definitely some promise, but we'll see whether that translates into production this season. Again, Bane/Optimus Prime wreaking havoc on the interior would free these guys up for some one-on-one opportunities, and help build some confidence. Unlike at tackle, everybody is back at end from a year ago, and they even add a very intriguing redshirt freshman to the mix. Actually, that's a good place to start, because Thieren Cockran isn't just in the mix, he's likely to be a week one starter. The Florida native wasn't highly recruited as he looked more like a receiver or lanky small forward at 6'6 and just over 200 pounds out of high school, but man, what a difference a year in the Eric Klein School of Strength, Conditioning, and Helluva Lot of Eating (the EKSSCHLE for short) makes. Cockran now looks like an NBA power forward, even taller than the 6'6 he's listed at, and bigger and stronger than 237 pounds. Claeys better be careful or Tubby Smith may try and take him and put him in the post for the basketball squad. If Hageman looks like a legit DT, then Cockran looks every bit like a big-time B1G defensive end. We'll find out this fall if he can play anywhere near as good as he looks.
Everybody else rotating in with Cockran for snaps this fall has experience and received significant playing time last year. Sophomore Michael Amaefula is the likely starter opposite Cockran, as he started four times and appeared in all 12 games as true freshman in 2011. The Texas native had 17 tackles, 1.5 sacks and recovered two fumbles, and was named the Gophers' defensive freshman of the year. Another fellow Texan, Ben Perry, started every game as a redshirt freshman a year ago recording 15 tackles, 1.5 TFL and one sack. Perry obviously didn't have great numbers for a starting end, but was the best of a woefully young and underachieving group. This year, he's not a likely starter but should get see some playing time as a reserve. Junior Matt Garin is from Apple Valley, and was regarded as one of the top 30 DE's in the nation coming out of Eastview in 2009. He shirted in 2009, started eight games in 2010, and appeared in eight games a season ago. He'll add solid depth and dependability.
Last, but certainly not least, is senior DL Wilhite, and the hope is he might find the same "light bulb go on" switch that senior corner Michael Carter located in the offseason. Really, their stories up until the offseason are almost identical, as Wilhite, like Carter, had a breakout year as a freshman in 2009. Yes, he had just four tackles in limited action, but three of them were sacks, and he also forced a fumble and recovered two, including one he housed against South Dakota State (remember when the Gophers used to beat 1-AA schools from the Dakotas? That was fun). Wilhite looked to potentially be the next Karon Riley as a pass-rushing force, but then Cosgrove showed up in 2010 and...it never happened. He appeared in all 12 games but started only eight, garnering just 14 tackles and one sack. Like with Carter, we had hope a new coaching staff would help him find his freshman form in 2011 but again, it didn't happen. Wilhite against appeared in all 12 and again started in only eight, finishing with 16 tackles, 3 sacks, and 3 TFL. Somewhere, "Wilhite the pass-rushing force" is lurking, waiting to terrorize Big Ten quarterbacks and offensive tackles. If anyone knows where to find him, please alert DL Wilhite and Tracy Claeys immediately.
So can Hageman become a Bane/Optimus Prime defensive tackle of mayhem and destruction? Can Cockran play anywhere near as good as he looks? Can Wilhite find his freshman form? These are the questions to ask yourself when deciding whether the 2012 defensive line will be an upgrade or downgrade from 2011.