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Minnesota Football: Spring Position Previews - Defensive Line

The Gophers' defensive line features a solid starting four, when healthy, but depth issues could continue to be a problem.

Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Between now and the Gophers' spring game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 9, we'll be breaking down each position group on both offense and defense. We'll take a look at who is leaving, who is coming back, and what to watch for before Minnesota takes the field for fall training camp.

Next up? The defensive line

Key Departure(s): Theiren Cockran, Alex Keith, and Robert Ndondo-Lay
Key Returner(s): Steven Richardson, Scott Ekpe, Gaelin Elmore, Hank Ekpe, Andrew Stelter, and Julian Huff
New Arrival(s): Merrick Jackson, Taiyon Devers, and TaMarion Johnson

The biggest loss on the defensive line will be the graduation of defensive end Theiren Cockran. Cockran was a three-year starter who never quite lived up to the team-leading 7.5 sacks he collected as a sophomore, but he was a solid and reliable contributor in his four years as a Gopher. Alex Keith and Robert Dndondo-Lay were reserves who figured into the rotation at end and tackle, respectively, and their departures will affect the depth for this position group, more than anything.

Junior defensive tackle Steven Richardson has been a force up in the middle since starting as a freshman, but missed three games last season due to injury. He had a monster game against Colorado State a season ago, totaling seven tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack, one pass break-up, and one forced and recovered fumble. He finished the season with 26 tackles, eight tackles for loss, and 3.5 tackles for loss, and was named All-Big Ten Honorable Mention. The other starting spot belongs to redshirt senior Scott Ekpe, but he missed six games last season due to injury. In his place, junior Andrew Stelter tallied 26 tackles with 1 tackle for loss. According to the coaching staff, Stelter has had a stellar offseason and has bulked up to 295 pounds, so look for him to challenge Ekpe.

Again, depth is the issue here. Everyone remembers when walk-on Justin Carr was forced to be a chief contributor in the game against Wisconsin. The Gophers will need to avoid situations like that. Along with Stelter, redshirt sophomore Gary Moore has been tabbed as one to watch after redshirting last season. Redshirt senior Yoshoub Timms was also in the mix last year with Richardson and Ekpe sidelined, recording 14 tackles, with two tackles for loss.

Junior college recruit Merrick Jackson is expected to make an immediate impact. Jackson is a 6'2'', 305-lb. defensive tackle out of Iowa Western Community College. In his two years at Iowa Western, Jackson totaled 122 tackles, 29.5 tackles for loss, and 12.5 sacks. You'll want to keep an eye on him this spring. I expect him to be a big contributor. The positive is that Minnesota has more than a few experienced upperclassmen at this position, but the negative is that there are virtually no underclassman. So look for that to be addressed in this next recruiting class.

Senior defensive end Hank Ekpe received quite a bit of praise from the coaching staff during fall camp last year, but the hype never translated into huge results on the field, as he finished the season with just 11 tackles, including 2.5 sacks. The Gopher I am most excited about on the defensive line is junior defensive end Gaelin Elmore. Elmore wasn't even a starter last season but put up similar numbers to Ekpe, totaling 12 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss, including 1.5 sacks. Elmore will likely step in for Cockran, and I look forward to seeing what he can do with a starting spot.

Behind Ekpe and Elmore, the unknown awaits. Redshirt sophomores Julien Kafo and Jerry Gibson (a converted tight end) and redshirt freshman Winston DeLattiboudere will compete this spring and into the fall to be part of the rotation at defensive end. I would be surprised if incoming freshmen Taiyon Devers and TaMarion Johnson do not redshirt this season.

Sophomore Julian Huff is a linebacker, but he made a name for himself last season by rushing the edge on passing downs, blowing past offensive tackles and terrorizing opposing quarterbacks. I'm excited to see how his role evolves moving forward. He finished the season with 22 tackles and 2.5 sacks, and made the highlight reel for the Quick Lane Bowl after forcing the Chippewas' quarterback Cooper Rush into throwing a late game interception.

Pressuring the quarterback has been a consistent weakness for the Gophers for a while now. Minnesota hasn't had a double-digit sack leader since Willie VanDeSteeg collected 10.5 sacks in 2006. In particular, the defensive linemen have struggled to create pressure on their own. The last two seasons, linebackers Damien Wilson (tied with Cockran) and De'Vondre Campbell have been the team's sack leaders. In five seasons under Jerry Kill, the Gophers ranked 86th, 59th, 101st, 61st, and 91st in the nation in sacks as a team. Will that change with Tracy Claeys at the helm and Jay Sawvel installed as the new defensive coordinator?