By Joe Perovich | KFAN.com
Not to be misunderstood as “the five best players on the Gophers”. Some of them might be included in such a list, but others not. This preview series will consist of five articles about five Gophers players that will make the biggest jump in 2014, by my estimation. It could be a player who’s been prominent in past years that will make an even bigger jump this year, or a player that has flown under-the-radar and will be a well-known commodity by season’s end.
No. 5 - Today: Cameron Botticelli, DL, RS Sr.
No. 4 – Sunday
No. 3 – Tuesday
No. 2 – Thursday
No. 1 – Aug. 23
Two of last season's trench disruptors, defensive tackles Ra'Shede Hageman and Roland Johnson, have departed due to graduation and professional endeavors.
The Gophers defensive line is predicated on rotating an assortment of players, as exemplified by the role Johnson served off the bench.
What remains, however, is what Johnson was not - a starting defensive tackle from last year's team.
Cameron Botticelli, a redshirt senior from Milwaukee, Wis., started alongside Hageman for the entirety of 2012 and 11-of-13 games last season.
Botticelli has never averaged more tackles than games played, begging the question - why has he played in every, single game dating back to the 2011 season?
Standing 6-foot-5 with a 290-pound frame, Botticelli is certainly a gap filler, responsible for clogging lanes and slowing a play's development to give teammates an extra second to pursue the ball carrier. These sort of players provide contributions that aren't quantifiable, but nonetheless imperative to the success of team defense. Hageman even went as far as calling Botticelli "the brains of [Minnesota's] operation" prior to the 2013 season.
There's a reason Botticelli has played in every, single game since his redshirt senior season in 2011. In fact, since the 2011 season, only five Gophers defensive players have played in each one of the possible 38 games: alumni Hageman, Brock Vereen, James Manuel, and current Gophers Botticelli and DE Michael Amaefula.
That list excludes numerous defensive contributors in prior seasons: current Gopher Derrick Wells, St. Louis Rams hopeful Aaron Hill, Cedric Thompson (one of this year's Gophers representatives at Big Ten media days), and several others.
Coaches place dependability at a premium, and Botticelli has never failed at 'being there'.
Last year, defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys and defensive line coach Jeff Phelps frequented with a four-man rotation of Botticelli, Hageman, Johnson, and 2014 starter Scott Ekpe. Botticelli and Hageman were on the field for the majority of the snaps, but Claeys and Wright employ situational tactics when deciding who is on the field, and at what time.
With Hageman and Johnson gone, Botticelli is the most experienced defensive tackle on the team by 13 games.
Gophers coaches are buzzing with excitement about freshman DT Steven Richardson, conveying that they expect his services as early as this season. He's supremely talented and has a penetration style that contrasts Botticelli, but of course, Richardson will be encountering many Division I football experiences for the very first time. He has never played in front of 100,000 screaming fans at The Big House, where Minnesota opens its Big Ten schedule.
And to go even further, just about all of the options Gophers coaches have in their arsenal for rotating at defensive tackle lack in experience. Along with Richardson, backup DT candidates for a rotation spot -- Yoshoub Timms, Harold Legania, Robert Ndondo-Lay and Demarius Peppers -- have a combined 9 games of experience.
To guide its youth in trench, Minnesota will need Botticelli to 'be there' once again. His track record doesn't indicate a disappointment in that regard.