Big Ten: Cameron Botticelli

Welcome to June. The 2014 college football season is just a little bit closer. With that in mind, we're looking at the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best.

We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/abducted by Sam Cassell and his friends. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense, but not always. Next up: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

[+] EnlargeLeidner
Jesse Johnson/USA TODAY SportsIf Mitch Leidner can improve his passing skills, he could provide a boost to Minnesota's offense.
Mitch Leidner, QB, So.

Leidner is by no means a finished product and must make significant strides as a passer after completing just 55 percent of his passes for 619 yards as a platoon player in 2013. But his value has skyrocketed in recent months. Philip Nelson's transfer in January leaves Leidner as Minnesota's only quarterback with significant game experience. Perhaps more important, Minnesota wants to be a power offense that controls the ball and the clock and wears down its opponent. The 6-foot-4, 233-pound Leidner brings a lot to the field as a ball-carrier, and if he makes just minimal strides with his passing, he could be very dangerous going forward. This spring, Leidner established himself as the team's unquestioned leader on offense. Although reserves Chris Streveler and Dimonic Roden-McKinzy both are good athletes, Leidner would be a significant loss as Minnesota looks to bolster its offensive production.

Theiren Cockran, DE, Jr.

Coordinator Tracy Claeys expects more from a pretty stingy defense in 2014, citing improved depth throughout the unit. But after losing disruptive defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman to the NFL draft, the Gophers want to maintain a threat up front. Cockran certainly provides one after a breakout sophomore season in which he led the Big Ten in forced fumbles (4) and finished third in sacks (7.5). Listed at 6-foot-6 and 238 pounds, Cockran has both height and speed and could become even more of a force as he grows into his frame (he wants to play this season at 255 pounds). The Gophers have some experience on the line with players such as end Michael Amaefula and tackle Cameron Botticelli, but Cockran is the potential game-changer, and after losing Hageman, the Gophers need No. 55 on the field.

Spring game recap: Minnesota

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
10:30
AM ET
So much spring-game goodness on Saturday. We're recapping all the action today, and now it's time to review the Minnesota Golden Gophers' spring fling.

The team held a 70-minute scrimmage before about 5,000 fans at TCF Bank Stadium. You can find coverage of the day's events here, here and here.

Star of the game: Redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards ran 11 times for 46 yards and had the day's only touchdown on a 19-yard scamper.

How it went down: Gophers fans were hoping to see major improvement from an offense that sputtered down the stretch last season but witnessed the team reaching the end zone only one time.

"That's why you get this out of your system now," head coach Jerry Kill joked about the poor offensive showing.

It was only a spring game, and Kill believes the team did make progress on that side of the ball during its 15 spring practice sessions. But that wasn't really evident on Saturday.

Starting quarterback Mitch Leidner led the offense on six drives against the second-team defense, which led to just two field goals and an interception. Jalen Myrick made the pick on a play in which Drew Wolitarsky was open but Leidner underthrew the ball.

“I thought at times we put good drives together; we’ve just got to finish,” said Leidner, who was 7-for-15 for 74 yards. "And there were a couple times when me and the receivers have to get on the same page. But I mean, that’s why we’ve got however many months to work on that.”

Edwards was a bright spot, and Rodrick Williams Jr. ran for 52 yards on nine carries. Sophomore tight end Duke Anyanwu led all receivers with three catches for 19 yards.

The defense had a solid day with four sacks and that interception by Myrick. Linebackers Chris Wipson, De'Niro Laster and Nick Rallis each had seven stops.

But more than half of the projected starters on defense didn't play, including tackle Cameron Botticelli. Kill said he is out for 5 to 6 weeks with a broken foot. With the defense down so many players, it was disappointing that the offense didn't take advantage. The passing game remains an obvious area of need this summer for the Gophers.

Spring game preview: Minnesota

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
10:00
AM ET
Ten league squads wrap up spring practice this weekend, and we’re taking a look at each spring game or scrimmage. Next up: Minnesota.

When: 3:30 p.m. ET Saturday

Where: TCF Bank Stadium

Admission: Free. Gates open at 1:30 p.m. ET. There will be a Gopher football alumni football game from 2-3 p.m. ET, and former players will sign autographs in the west plaza after the game.

TV: Streamed live on BTN2Go.com. The game will be also shown Sunday at 6:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network.

Weather forecast: Mostly cloudy, with a high near 67. Chance of precipitation is 70 percent, though most of the rain is predicted for the morning.

What to watch for: One of the Gophers' biggest goals for this offseason was to develop more playmakers, especially in the passing game. So it would be very encouraging to see the offense come up with some explosive plays during the spring game.

Mitch Leidner has established himself as the clear No. 1 quarterback, and the team is hoping young receivers Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones continue to make strides, along with a deep crew at tight end (Maxx Williams is out with a knee injury). The Gophers could also use a few more home runs in their rushing attack, and perhaps redshirt freshman Berkley Edwards, who broke off a 50-yard scoring run in last week's scrimmage, can provide that. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover knows he can still pound the ball with veteran backs David Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood, plus Leidner. Top recruit Jeff Jones is also on the way.

If Minnesota's offense can move the ball effectively against its own defense, that's a reason for optimism. Despite losing star defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and defensive back Brock Vereen, coordinator Tracy Claeys can call on a pretty experienced crew. Claeys would like to see a leap forward from his linebacker group, which lost seniors Aaron Hill and James Manuel but returns guys like Damien Wilson, De'Vondre Campbell and Jack Lynn who saw action last season. Replacing Hageman will probably require a group effort, but the coaching staff likes the potential of Scott Ekpe and Cameron Botticelli inside.

All in all, the team probably has fewer question marks going into this spring game than any previous ones under Jerry Kill. That's why hopes are high in Minneapolis.
We're taking snapshots of each position group with each Big Ten team entering the spring. Up next: the defensive lines.

Illinois: This is a significant concern for the Illini, especially after the recent departure of Houston Bates, who started last season at the Leo (defensive end/outside linebacker) spot. Illinois also loses its other starting defensive end, Tim Kynard. The team will rely heavily on junior-college players such as Jihad Ward and Joe Fotu, but it also needs holdovers like Dawuane Smoot and Paul James III to step up on the perimeter. Illinois returns more experience inside with Austin Teitsma and Teko Powell, but there should be plenty of competition, especially with the juco arrivals, after finishing 116th nationally against the run.

Indiana: The anticipated move to a 3-4 alignment under new coordinator Brian Knorr creates a different dynamic for the line this spring. Indiana must identify options at the all-important nose tackle spot, and possibilities include sophomores Ralphael Green and Darius Latham, both of whom are big bodies. Nick Mangieri had a nice sophomore season and should be in the mix for a starting job on the perimeter (end or outside linebacker), while David Kenney could be a good fit as a 3-4 end. Defensive end Ryan Phillis is the team's most experienced lineman, and Zack Shaw also has some starting experience.

Iowa: This group should be the strength of the defense as Iowa returns three full-time starters -- tackles Carl Davis and Louis Trinca-Pasat, and end Drew Ott -- as well as Mike Hardy, who started the second half of the season opposite Ott. End Dominic Alvis departs, but Iowa brings back almost everyone else from a line that allowed only eight rushing touchdowns in 2013. Junior Darian Cooper could have a bigger role and push for more playing time inside, and Nate Meier provides some depth on the perimeter after recording two sacks in 2013. Iowa is in good shape here.

Maryland: The Terrapins employ a 3-4 scheme and appear to be in good shape up front, as reserve Zeke Riser is the only rotation player to depart. Andre Monroe leads the way at defensive end after an excellent junior season in which he led Maryland in both sacks (9.5) and tackles for loss (17). Quinton Jefferson started at defensive end last season and recorded three sacks. There should be some good competition this spring at nose tackle between Keith Bowers and Darius Kilgo, both of whom had more than 30 tackles last season. The challenge is building greater depth with players such as end Roman Braglio.

Michigan: If the Wolverines intend to make a big step in 2014, they'll need more from the front four, which didn't impact games nearly enough last fall. Michigan's strength appears to be on the edges as veteran Frank Clark returns after starting every game in 2013 and recording a team-high 12 tackles for loss. Brennen Beyer, who started the second half of last season, is back at the other end spot, and Michigan has depth with Mario Ojemudia and Taco Charlton. There are more questions inside as Willie Henry, Chris Wormley and others compete for the starting job. Young tackles such as Henry Poggi and Maurice Hurst Jr. also are in the mix, and Ondre Pipkins should be a factor when he recovers from ACL surgery.

Michigan State: The Spartans return the best defensive end tandem in the league as Shilique Calhoun, a second-team All-American in 2013, returns alongside Marcus Rush, one of the Big Ten's most experienced defenders. Joel Heath, Brandon Clemons and others provide some depth on the perimeter. It's a different story inside as MSU loses both starters (Micajah Reynolds and Tyler Hoover), as well as reserve Mark Scarpinato. Damon Knox, James Kittredge and Lawrence Thomas, who has played on both sides of the ball, are among those who will compete for the starting tackle spots. If Malik McDowell signs with MSU, he could work his way into the rotation.

Minnesota: Defensive tackles like Ra'Shede Hageman don't come around every year, and he leaves a big void in the middle of Minnesota's line. The Gophers will look to several players to replace Hageman's production, including senior Cameron Botticelli, who started opposite Hageman last season. Other options at tackle include Scott Ekpe and Harold Legania, a big body at 308 pounds. Minnesota is in much better shape at end with Theiren Cockran, arguably the Big Ten's most underrated defensive lineman. Cockran and Michael Amaefula both started every game last season, and Alex Keith provides another solid option after recording five tackles for loss in 2013.

Nebraska: Other than MSU's Calhoun, Nebraska returns the most dynamic defensive lineman in the league in Randy Gregory, who earned first-team All-Big Ten honors in his first FBS season. If the Huskers can build around Gregory, they should be very stout up front this fall. Nebraska won't have Avery Moss, suspended for the 2014 season, and players such as Greg McMullen and junior-college transfer Joe Keels will compete to start opposite Gregory. The competition inside should be fascinating as junior Aaron Curry and sophomore Vincent Valentine both have starting experience, but Maliek Collins came on strong at the end of his first season and will push for a top job.

Northwestern: It will be tough to get a clear picture of this group in the spring because of several postseason surgeries, but Northwestern should be fine at defensive end despite the loss of Tyler Scott. Dean Lowry, Ifeadi Odenigbo and Deonte Gibson all have significant experience and the ability to pressure quarterbacks. Odenigbo, who had 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman, could become a star. The bigger questions are inside as Northwestern must build depth. Sean McEvilly is a solid option but must stay healthy. Chance Carter and Max Chapman are among those competing for starting jobs at tackle.

Ohio State: A total mystery last spring, the defensive line should be one of Ohio State's strengths in 2014. Noah Spence and Joey Bosa could become the Big Ten's top pass-rushing tandem, and the Buckeyes have depth there with Jamal Marcus, Adolphus Washington and others. Returning starter Michael Bennett is back at defensive tackle, and while Joel Hale might move to offense, there should be enough depth inside with Tommy Schutt, Chris Carter and Washington, who could slide inside. Nose tackle is the only question mark, but new line coach Larry Johnson inherits a lot of talent.

Penn State: Like the rest of the Lions defense, the line struggled at times last season and now much replace its top player in tackle DaQuan Jones. The new coaching staff has some potentially good pieces, namely defensive end Deion Barnes, who won 2012 Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors but slumped as a sophomore. Barnes and C.J. Olaniyan could form a dangerous pass-rushing tandem, but they'll need support on the inside, where there should be plenty of competition. Austin Johnson will be in the mix for a starting tackle spot, and early enrollees Tarow Barney and Antoine White also should push for time. Anthony Zettel provides some depth on the perimeter.

Purdue: The line endured a tough 2013 campaign and loses two full-time starters (tackle Bruce Gaston Jr. and end Greg Latta), and a part-time starter (end Ryan Isaac). Competition should be ramped up at all four spots this spring. Senior end Ryan Russell is the most experienced member of the group must take a step this offseason. Evan Panfil and Jalani Phillips will push for time at the end spots, along with Kentucky transfer Langston Newton. The group at tackle includes Ryan Watson and Michael Rouse III, both of whom started games in 2013.

Rutgers: Keep a close eye on this group in the spring as Rutgers begins the transition to the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights lose two starters in end Marcus Thompson and tackle Isaac Holmes, as well as contributor Jamil Merrell at tackle. Darius Hamilton provides a building block on the inside after recording 4.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, and end Djwany Mera is back after starting throughout last season. David Milewski played tackle last year, but both he and Hamilton likely need to add weight for their new league. Rutgers has some talent in the younger classes and needs players such as Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay and Julian Pinnix-Odrick to emerge.

Wisconsin: Linebacker Chris Borland is the biggest single departure for the Badgers' defense, but the no position group loses more than the line. Wisconsin must replace several mainstays, most notably nose tackle Beau Allen, who performed well in the first year of the 3-4 set under coordinator Dave Aranda. Senior Warren Herring will step in for Allen after three years as a reserve. Konrad Zagzebski is a good bet to fill one of the end spots, but there will be plenty of competition with players such as Jake Keefer, James Adeyanju, Arthur Goldberg and Chikwe Obasih.
Tags:

Purdue Boilermakers, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Penn State Nittany Lions, Big Ten Conference, Michigan State Spartans, Northwestern Wildcats, Indiana Hoosiers, Illinois Fighting Illini, Ohio State Buckeyes, Michigan Wolverines, Wisconsin Badgers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Maryland Terrapins, C.J. Olaniyan, Ryan Phillis, Louis Trinca-Pasat, DaQuan Jones, Konrad Zagzebski, Tyler Hoover, Larry Johnson, Micajah Reynolds, Warren Herring, Aaron Curry, Ra\'Shede Hageman, Harold Legania, Beau Allen, Austin Teitsma, Ryan Russell, Marcus Rush, Sean McEvilly, Lawrence Thomas, Dominic Alvis, Deion Barnes, Chance Carter, Max Chapman, Zack Shaw, Bruce Gaston Jr., Shilique Calhoun, Deonte Gibson, Michael Amaefula, Damon Knox, Darian Cooper, Jalani Phillips, Joel Hale, Jake Keefer, Anthony Zettel, Houston Bates, Tyler Scott, Carl Davis, Noah Spence, Nick Mangieri, Greg McMullen, Arthur Goldberg, Randy Gregory, Ryan Isaac, Tommy Schutt, Adolphus Washington, Ifeadi Odenigbo, Vincent Valentine, Jamal Marcus, Teko Powell, Greg Latta, Ryan Watson, James Kittredge, Tim Kynard, Mark Scarpinato, Chris Carter, Ralphael Green, Chikwe Obasih, Malik McDowell, David Kenney, Dawuane Smoot, Darius Latham, Nate Meier, Dean Lowry, Joey Bosa, Dave Aranda, Evan Panfil, Cameron Botticelli, Theiren Cockran, Avery Moss, Michael Rouse III, Drew Ott, Scott Ekpe, Antoine White, Alex Keith, Paul James, Joe Keels, Tarow Barney, Jihad Ward, Maliek Collins, Langston Newton, Joe Fotu, Andre Monroe, B1G spring positions 14, Quinton Jefferson, Keith Bowers, Darius Kilgo, Roman Braglio, Marcus Thompson, Isaac Holmes, Jamil Merrell, Djwany Mera, David Milewski, Sebastian Joseph, Kemoko Turay, Julian Pinnix-Odrick, James Adeyanju

Now that spring practice is over, we're examining the most indispensable players on each Big Ten team.

By indispensable, we don't necessarily mean best. We mean the players who would be hardest to replace between now and the start of the season if they got hurt/suspended/run over by a rickshaw, etc. That could be because of their value to the team or because of a lack of depth at their position.

We'll pick two players from each team, usually offense and defense but not always. Let's turn now to the Minnesota Golden Gophers:

Ra'Shede Hageman, DT

The Gophers had pretty good competition for playing time all along their defensive front this spring. With the exception, that is, of Hageman's spot. He's the most accomplished veteran on that line and maybe the best overall athlete on the entire team at 6-foot-6, 310 pounds. Minnesota expect Hageman to build on the progress he made his junior year and become a truly dominant figure as a senior. The defensive tackle spot is not bare outside of Hageman; Cameron Botticelli returns at the other spot after starting all 13 games last season, and the coaches really like the potential of Scott Ekpe. But they don't make too many guys like Hageman, and his skills would be awfully tough to replace.

Ed Olson, LT

Loads of injuries on the offensive line last year had one positive effect for Minnesota: Young players were forced to gain experience, and now there's some actual depth in that group. Still, the offensive line is different when Olson is anchoring it at left tackle. This will be his fourth year as a starter, and when he got hurt after six games last year, there was a noticeable drop-off in performance for the line as a whole. Olson also missed this spring because of an injury, and Marek Lenkiewicz took his first-team reps. Lenkiewicz is capable, but the Gophers would feel the loss if Olson wasn't there to protect Philip Nelson's blind side.

More indispensable:

Michigan
Wisconsin
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill guided the team to a bowl game during his second season in Minneapolis despite some depth and injury problems in 2012. What's in store for Year 3 of the Kill era? I recently caught up with him to get his outlook for the Gophers' spring practice, which opens today.

How has the offseason gone for you guys so far?

Jerry Kill: Well, I think the bowl game, even though we lost, the kids played very hard and well. We got healthy, for one, before we went to the bowl, and we had a great month with our kids and a great experience. And coming into the offseason, I think there was a lot of confidence gained. All our kids' strength and testing numbers went up. I guess I can use Ra'Shede Hageman as an example, He benched 450 pounds, squatted well over 500 and cleaned 350, with a 38-inch vertical. So kids like that got a lot better.

We feel up front and on the defensive line, we've gotten stronger. I think we've added some depth to the defensive line, and secondary-wise, we played several freshmen in that game against Texas Tech. We've got the flexibility to play Derrick Wells at corner and safety. I think the biggest question mark we've got going in is, we lost five scholarship linebackers. It's like a year ago when we lost seven secondary players and kind of hit the jackpot in recruiting. Damien Wilson, a junior college transfer, has had a great spring, and I'm looking forward to seeing him on the field. The guys who need the reps this spring are James Manuel, Aaron Hill, Lamonte Edwards, and young men we redshirted named Jack Lynn and Nick Rallis. And then we've got four other kids coming when fall camp starts. Our secondary a year ago had a lot of questions and really played well. I think, this year, linebacker is where we need to step up on defense.

And then on offense, I feel we'll be a much better football team than we were a year ago because we get everybody back except for Brandon Green and Q [MarQueis Gray], really. So I think that unit will be much improved.

[+] EnlargeJerry Kill
AP Photo/Mark J. TerrillJerry Kill begins his third season as head coach of the Gophers.
You showed off a good power running game in that bowl game. Is that what we should expect from your offense going forward?

JK: Yeah, that's what we were at Northern Illinois. We could run the power at you, but then we were athletic enough to turn and run the zone read with the quarterback. Both [Chandler] Harnisch and [Jordan] Lynch, when we needed to throw it, we completed it. But we still made our living on running the football. It was the first time, in the bowl game, that we had the same offensive line that we had at the beginning of the seaon. We had so many people get experience there. But that's what we want to be -- a team that gives you a lot of different looks, shifting and motion and different personnel grouping. But you've still got to be able to run the football, and certainly in the Big Ten.

Speaking of that offensive line, after a lot of injuries there last year, how is the position looking this spring?

JK: Well, we've got a lot of depth, no question. Eddie Olson, he won't go through the spring, but he had a good year a year ago. If we can get his foot healed up and done right, it kind of works out. He'll continue to get stronger. We redshirted Jonah Pirsig, who's a 6-foot-8, 6-9, 320 pound tackle, Ben Lauer, who's 6-7 and probably 305, and Isaac Hayes, who is a 6-2, 300-pound offensive guard. So those kids, I'm anxious to see them in the spring.

We've got Zac Epping, Jon Christenson and Caleb Bak -- in the weight room, he benched 350, squatted 550, so he's gotten stronger. Josh Campion is a strong kid; he benches well over 400 pounds. So the same guys who when I first got here were getting pushed around have gotten stronger. And then we've added these young kids that have come in. Marek Lenkiewicz is up to 290 pounds, Tommy Olson is healthy again and Brian Bobek, who transferred from Ohio State and had great credentials when he went to Ohio State, he's another one who's very physically strong. Then there's Foster Bush and Joe Bjorklund. They're all young kids, but they've gotten physically stronger.

When we got here, I think we had about seven or eight offensive linemen. So we've built it through walk-ons and kind of did it the hard way. But I feel good about that position, along with our tight ends, quarterbacks and receivers. Our defense improved tremendously from one year to the next. For us to be competitive in the Big Ten -- which I think we can be -- our offense has to take the steps our defense did a year ago. And I think we can.

Philip Nelson finished the season for you at quarterback and had a nice bowl game, but you also have some talented young guys there. Is it his job to lose this spring or a more open competition?

JK: We took the redshirt off Philip last year, and he did some good things and had some things he struggled with, as you'd expect for a freshman. He did some great things in the bowl game. When we go into camp, somebody is going to have to go in there and beat him out. But the thing that's good about that is the competition.

Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler are great athletes who can play another position if needed, but they both want to play quarterback and they're very capable of giving someone a run for their money. I can tell you, our defense is very high on Leidner. Mitch is probably close to 6-5 and 230, and he is a 4.6, 4.65 guy [in the 40-yard dash]. And very strong. And then Streveler is quicker than that. He came in during the second semester, and I think he's the third-fastest guy on our team. When we had him in camp, he played receiver also.

So all three of those guys are great kids, students of the game, and the type of kids you want playing quarterback leadership-wise. We'll let it work out. Leidner and Streveler are the type of kids who would say, "Coach, if it helps the team if you move me, I'll do that." But in the spring we're going to let them compete and make sure we're solid at that position. If you look at last year, it was kind of a miracle we got to a bowl game, because we had three different quarterbacks and three different centers. Not many people can win doing that.

(Read full post)

Big Ten lunch links

March, 14, 2013
3/14/13
12:00
PM ET
The Big Ten hoops tournament is under way. If you need a break from roundball, check out the links.

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