After really struggling at times to pressure the quarterback last fall, the development of the defensive ends on roster became one of the things to watch for this past spring. With the return of players such as Hendrick Ekpe and Alex Keith fully healthy after both dealt with nagging injuries in 2014, teams won't be able solely focus on senior Theiren Cockran.
Also key in development of Minnesota's pass rush will be the progress of second year players Gaelin Elmore and Julien Kafo. Elmore was another one of the true freshman defensive lineman who had to play early on and after full Big Ten season under his belt, plus his first off-season, Elmore should take another step forward this fall. The unknown at the position will be Canadian defensive end Julien Kafo who took a redshirt last fall and physically looks like he could potentially this fall. Kafo still has a lot of learning to do, but physically he's getting close.
Spring surprise: Ekpe back at full strength
The true Hank Ekpe showed his face this past spring and was a force to be reckoned with. Ekpe battled serious migraines throughout the season and things only got worse when the temperature got colder. After an off-season with medical personnel and in the weight, Ekpe looked very explosive off the edge, which is just what the doctor ordered for defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys in his defense.
If Ekpe can keep his migraines under control and be the player that Gopher fans saw this past spring, things will take a step forward. Defenses won't be able to focus solely on Cockran, which should show a rise in both Ekpe and Cockran's sack totals.
Question that still needs answering: Who will step up?
Behind Theiren Cockran and Hank Ekpe to a degree, there's a lot uncertainty as to who will be stepping up this fall. Senior Alex Keith has shown promise in last few seasons, but can he stay healthy throughout the course of his final season to give the Gophers so pass rush. Does Gaelin Elmore continue his development and starting flashing more of his potential the the Minnesota staff has for him. And does senior leader Theiren Cockran finish strong after a solid, but less productive senior year. A lot of questions will become known come kickoff against TCU on national television.
What does the future hold at defensive end?
The good news regarding Minnesota's lack of defensive end depth is that only Cockran and Keith are seniors this season, meaning the bulk of the unit has a great chance to grow and improve over the course of the year.
Because of those depth issues, there's a chance that incoming true freshmen Winston Delattiboudere will get a chance to contribute right away this season based on the numbers alone, even if he is undersized and very raw.
Projected depth chart:
1 - Theiren Cockran (6-6, 258) RSr.
2 - Alex Keith - (6-3, 254) Sr.
3 - Julian Kafo (6-4, 256) RFr.
1 - Hank Ekpe (6-5, 239) Jr.
2 - Gaelin Elmore (6-6, 266) So.
3 - Winston DeLattiboudere (6-3, 230) Fr.