MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — The depth at defensive line that Minnesota brought into the season will be tested immediately.
Defensive tackle Scott Ekpe, who suffered a significant injury to his right knee in the opener last week, will likely miss the remained of the year, coach Jerry Kill confirmed Tuesday. Kill declined to give specifics but called the news about the junior a "major blow" to the Gophers.
"Tough deal for Scott," Kill said.
Starting in place of Ra'Shede Hageman, a second-round NFL draft pick by the Atlanta Falcons, Ekpe was hurt in the first quarter against Eastern Illinois. Junior defensive end Alex Keith, who had a sack, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries in the 42-20 victory, also injured his left knee in the game and did not return. Sophomore defensive tackle Yoshoub Timms hurt his left leg and hobbled off the field, too.
Keith was starting instead of Michael Amaefula, who sat out due to an unspecified leg injury. That meant four of the team's top 10 defensive linemen were missing at the end of the game.
Amaefula will return Saturday against Middle Tennessee. Kill said the conditions for Keith and Timms aren't as serious as Ekpe, refusing to rule either of them in or out for the game against the Blue Raiders.
Either way, Steven Richardson, a 6-foot, 290-pound true freshman from Chicago, will likely assume Ekpe's spot in the lineup between senior defensive tackle Cameron Botticelli and junior defensive end Thieren Cockran. Richardson was credited with three tackles and a half-sack in his first college game.
Junior Robert Ndondo-Lay will also have his role elevated. Two other true freshmen from the area, Andrew Stelter (Owatonna) and Gaelin Elmore (Somerset, Wisconsin), will be part of the rotation. Harold Legania was moved back from the offensive line for more help.
"It's kind of cold, but as far as preparing you can't worry about the ones you don't have," defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said. "Those young kids, we don't have any other choice. Throw them in there. They're more than capable of getting it done."
Botticelli wasn't worried about the rookies, either.
"The heater's been turned up a little bit, and they know that they have to perform," he said.
The Gophers don't have the same depth as the traditional Big Ten powers, so planning for injuries is always an important part of their strategy in terms of developing underclassmen and backups. While their losses Thursday could be difficult to deal with, they ought not to be devastating.
"It's part of it. Got to be lucky sometimes. Not so lucky on the first game," Kill said. "Hopefully we'll stay healthy the rest of the year."
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