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College football: Two key defensive lineman injured in Gopher victory

By Marcus R. Fuller

St. Paul Pioneer Press

MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers football coach Jerry Kill seemed worried Friday about the leg injuries suffered by his defensive linemen, especially starters Scott Ekpe and Alex Keith.

Losing either player would be a blow to the University of Minnesota’s depth up front and overshadow an impressive defensive showing in Thursday’s 42-20 season-opening victory over Eastern Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium.

Ekpe, the older brother of Gophers sophomore defensive end Hank Ekpe, appeared to suffer a severe right leg injury during the game.

Kill offered no update Friday except to say Keith, Scott Ekpe and sophomore Yoshoub Timms were scheduled to get MRIs.

“You can’t lose any front-line players and be where you need to be,” Kill said Friday. “To be successful, you have to stay healthy. You have to be lucky. Hopefully, we’ll get lucky on this deal.”

Ekpe, a 6-foot-4, 290-pound junior from Lewisville, Texas, made his first career start, replacing 2013 All-Big Ten defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, who is now with the Atlanta Falcons. Ekpe went to the sideline in the first quarter and didn’t return.

Keith, a 6-3, 245-pound junior from Columbia, Mo., was arguably the player of the game with four tackles, a forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and a sack before he left in the third quarter with a left leg injury.

Kill compared Keith to former Northern Illinois standout defensive end Larry English, a first-round NFL draft pick in 2009.

“He’s taken care of himself; he wants to be a great player,” Kill said of Keith. “I talked to him a lot about Larry English, who is making a lot of money, and he was only 255 (pounds) and could run like that and rush the passer. Kid’s mature. I would say (Keith is) the David Cobb of the defense. I just hope he’s OK.”

Senior defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli and returning All-Big Ten junior defensive end Theiren Cockran combined for six tackles Thursday. Botticelli also had a sack.

The defensive line got much younger after the Gophers switched senior Harold Legania from defensive tackle to offensive line during fall camp.

Defensive tackle Steven Richardson, a true freshman who had three tackles and an assist on a sack, could replace Ekpe in Saturday’s home game against Middle Tennessee.

Junior Robert Ndondo-Lay played defensive end and defensive tackle Thursday. True freshmen Andrew Stelter and Gaelin Elmore also saw significant playing time on the defensive line.

Offensively, the Gophers hope to be at full strength Saturday. Former starting left tackle Ben Lauer (ankle) didn’t play Thursday, but Kill said he should be ready this week.

It’s possible Lauer could rotate with Jonah Pirsig, a sophomore who made his first career start Thursday at left tackle.

“He only practiced full tilt for about three days,” Kill said of Lauer. “We were going to play him at the end, but then (we waited). He’ll be ready next week full tilt. That will help us. I think we’ll get the depth on the offensive line that we want this coming week.”


Wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky (shoulder injury) and defensive end Michael Amaefula (leg injury) are expected to play Saturday, Kill said.

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