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Several Gophers in competition at defensive tackle

MINNEAPOLIS — Ra’Shede Hageman left big shoes to fill. So big, in fact, that the Gophers haven’t found a defensive tackle to fill them.

So far, defensive line coach Jeff Phelps has found that replacing the 6-foot-6, 315-pound Atlanta Falcons rookie has been a group effort among Cameron Botticelli, Harold Legania and Scott Ekpe.

“It’s been a great competition,” Phelps said.

Botticelli and Legania are seniors, but Botticelli is the only tackle who has ever started a game for the Gophers, a total of 24 starts in three seasons. But the 6-4, 313-pound Legania has supplanted Hageman as the Gophers’ strongest player, bench-pressing a team-best 415 pounds and squatting 570.

“Ra’Shede was a great player; he’s going to have a very successful NFL career,” Legania said. “I want to contribute to the team as best I can, and help fill Ra’Shede’s shoes along with Botticelli and Scott Ekpe.”

Botticelli, eager to end his career on a high note, is showing “big-time” leadership, Phelps said. He said Ekpe isn’t as vocal as his older teammates but leads his own way.

“He doesn’t say a whole lot but will always be where he’s supposed to be and help out those young guys on an individual basis,” Phelps said.

Ekpe is projected to start alongside Botticelli. He played 26 games as a freshman and sophomore, keeping Hageman, Botticelli and departed senior Roland Johnson fresh.

Now the Gophers are looking at others to add depth at defensive tackle, including sophomore Yoshoub Timms, redshirt freshman Demaris Peppers and true freshman Steven Richardson.

Richardson, a 6-foot, 290-pound product of Mount Carmel High School in Illinois, showed coaches he could play immediately with a solid effort in Saturday’s scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium.

“He really rose to the top as a guy we’re going to have to count on,” Phelps said. “He’s been running with the (second-team defense) and doing a good job. He’s structurally built low, so it helps him out a little bit there. He’s a football player. He’s a competitor. When you add that, then it’s just a matter of learning what you do defensively. He’s big enough, strong enough and fast enough to do what we want to do up front.”

Looking for more of a pass-rushing threat at tackle, though, Phelps said the Gophers also are experimenting with defensive end Robert Ndondo-Lay on the inside.

Getting after the quarterback was one of Hageman’s strengths.

But it will take a group effort to make up for such a dominant presence.

“After Thursday’s scrimmage, we’ll kind of really solidify the first and second groups, and get them a lot of good work in,” Phelps said. “If nobody steps up, then we’ve got to keep going with the competition.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.