MINNEAPOLIS — Cameron Botticelli could have settled for security, with one of the six FCS schools that offered him full scholarships out of Milwaukee Marquette High School.
He chose the challenge instead, paying his own way as a walk-on at Minnesota. The risk has yielded reward for both Botticelli and the Gophers.
“I wanted to compete at the highest level,” said Botticelli, who received a scholarship at the end of his redshirt freshman season.
As a fifth-year senior, one of 10 remaining from coach Tim Brewster’s last season, Botticelli has become the leader of a deep defensive line, a position group that helped fuel the Gophers winning four Big Ten games last year for the first time since 2005.
Gone is tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, who started next to Botticelli the last two seasons and was taken in the second round of the NFL draft by Atlanta, but the Gophers have been confident about junior Scott Ekpe and freshman Steve Richardson sliding into Hageman’s spot.
“As far as his character and his presence goes in the locker room and on the team, we can’t replace that. We’ve lost that with his graduation. As far as his production and his impact on the field, we’re not trying to replace him. We’re trying to improve on it,” Botticelli said.
Thieren Cockran, who led the team with 7.5 sacks last year, and Michael Amaefula are back on the ends. Alex Keith could start for Amaefula in the season opener Thursday against Eastern Illinois, with Amaefula listed as questionable because of an unspecified injury. Newcomers Robert Ndondo-Lay and Andrew Stelter have stood out during fall camp.
This has Botticelli excited about the possibilities of his final year. With an eye toward the NFL next season, and a backup plan with law school, Botticelli has already graduated with a degree in political science and has begun a master’s program in education.
“I’ve covered a lot of ground in five years, without being self-congratulatory,” Botticelli said, smiling. “But it feels like just last week I came up here as a freshman.”
Here are some key nuggets to know about Minnesota’s 2014 kickoff, facing Eastern Illinois:
JIMMY’S JOB: The Panthers went 12-2 last season behind quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who was a second-round NFL draft pick by New England. Dameron said this week he plans to play both Andrew Manley and Jalen Whitlow in his place and declined to name a starter.
Manley, a Leilehua graduate and former all-state quarterback who backed up Garoppolo last year, led New Mexico State to an upset at Minnesota in Kill’s first home game in 2011. Whitlow is also an FBS transfer, who started 15 games over the last two seasons for Kentucky.
LEIDNER THE LEADER: Quarterback Mitch Leidner has an experienced offensive line in front of him and a 1,200-yard rusher in David Cobb headlining a deep, versatile backfield. The wide receivers remain unproven, though, and the pressure will be on Leidner to help lift the offense out of last place in the Big Ten in passing, after averaging just 148.1 yards per game with 12 total touchdowns in 2013.
“It’s just really big for me and my confidence, coming in every day and knowing the guys are looking up to me as their leader,” Leidner said.
The Gophers only produced 17 passing plays of 25 yards or more in 2013.
“I’ve seen big plays and passes but you’ve got to do ’em in the game,” coach Jerry Kill said. “I think we’ve got guys that can make big plays, but they’ve got to make ’em in the game.”
TACKLE SHUFFLE: Ben Lauer, who started four games at left tackle last season, was in line to take over the job from Ed Olson until spraining his ankle in practice. Josh Campion has moved from right to left tackle, with Lauer listed as the backup this week. Sophomore Jonah Pirsig will get his first career start at right tackle, but Lauer hasn’t lost the job.
“We’re not going to punish Ben because he got hurt,” Kill said.
FIRST MEETING: Boosted by a handful of FBS transfers, Eastern Illinois has the type of FCS-level talent on par with three-time defending champion North Dakota State, which beat the Gophers in Kill’s first year. The Panthers, who have nine playoff appearances since 2000, fourth-most in the FCS, have never played Minnesota and never beaten in a Big Ten team in six previous tries.
NEW BOSS: First-time head coach Kim Dameron took over the Panthers this season for Dino Babers, who moved up a level to become the head coach at Bowling Green. Dameron was the defensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech last year and had that job with Eastern Illinois in 2000.