College Football: Cockran ready to do more for Gophers
MINNEAPOLIS — Theiren Cockran, the University of Minnesota’s sack leader last year, looks every bit like an NFL defensive end.
The redshirt junior from Homestead, Florida., has just what the pros are looking for: size (at 6 feet 6, 255 pounds), speed (he runs 40 yards in 4.55 seconds) and reach (a 7-foot wingspan).
“If you can come with a combination of power, agility and speed, I think that’s what makes you the best pass rusher,” Gophers defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said.
So why isn’t Cockran getting more attention?
Well, this might be the year of the pass rusher in the Big Ten.
The conference’s top five sackers from 2013 are back, led by Michigan State’s Shilique Calhoun, the Big Ten preseason defensive player of the year. Nebraska’s Randy Gregory and Ohio State’s Joey Bosa are also on preseason All-American lists.
It didn’t matter that Cockran’s 7 sacks were the most for the Gophers since Willie VanDeSteeg’s 10 in 2008. He might need an even bigger year to prove he is one of the elite pass rushers in the Big Ten.
“I look forward to the challenge,” Cockran said. “I know teams are going to be keying on me. But that should open opportunities for my teammates to make plays. It’s only a team effort. We can look for the sack number to increase as a group, not just my number.”
Having a dominant presence such as Ra’Shede Hageman on the inside allowed Cockran to face one-on-one matchups last season.
He’ll see more double teams with Hageman off to the NFL, so defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys met with Cockran in the offseason about areas where he needed to improve. Claeys told the All-Big Ten second-team lineman to work on getting off the ball more quickly and being more physical with his hands.
But the biggest thing separating Cockran from having a “great season” is his conditioning, Claeys said.
“He wants to be the guy,” Claeys said. “He has to get in the position where he can come off the ball and play the same in the fourth quarter as he does the first half. That’s one thing I didn’t think (he did last year), whether he wore down or whatever. So he’s worked hard on his conditioning. He has a great burst there.”
As a redshirt freshman in 2012, Cockran played behind D.L. Wilhite, who led the Gophers in sacks. He learned a lot about work ethic and how to motivate teammates, and Hageman showed him last fall how to be a leader.
“Having that ability to turn it on and get ready to go, to be the competitor in the weight room, in training, out at practice, those are the things to get excited (about) as a defensive line coach,” Phelps said.
Cockran and seniors Michael Amaefula and Ben Perry are by far Minnesota’s most experienced defensive ends with 56 combined starts.
But Perry made just one start the past two seasons. And sophomore Hank Ekpe and juniors Alex Keith and Robert Ndondo-Lay have started one game between them.
Keith’s two sacks last year ranked second on the team, and it was a sign of how much the Gophers struggled to get to the quarterback. Their 18 sacks ranked 10th in the Big Ten.
That’s one reason why talented freshman Gaelin Elmore, a 6-6, 265-pound tight end, was moved to defensive end last week — to add more depth at the position.
With the pass rushing mostly on his shoulders again this season, Cockran has added nearly 15 pounds to help him carry the load.
“I feel great running around with a few extra pounds,” he said. “Mostly for me, it’s just about taking on a leadership role and getting the younger guys acclimated.”
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