Minnesota's Theiren Cockran looking to finish on good note

Life as a marked man can take a toll on personal numbers, but Theiren Cockran has no problem with the new math that came with becoming a target for offensive linemen.

The Minnesota defensive end watched his sacks total drop. He wasn’t around the ball as often to chip in as many tackles for loss last season following his breakout campaign as a sophomore. And in the process, the preseason hype and the awards spotlight dwindled as well.

But measuring his impact isn’t really possible with individual statistics, and with more on-field attention directed at Cockran, the Gophers around him more than picked up the slack on a unit that collectively was significantly improved. And if it takes some sort of statistical sacrifice to keep Minnesota in the picture as a Big Ten contender again this season, that equation works just fine for the rising senior heading into his final spring practice at Minnesota.

“When teams key on you a little bit, when they notice you have had a little success or something like that, they start to focus on you more,” Cockran said. “So, if you look at the stats, it might take away from them a bit. But the other part is that if you’re getting double-teamed, somebody is getting open.

“Some things changed, but there was nothing bad about it. I feel like it was a great year.”

Cockran won’t get much argument from the Gophers, who had plenty to feel good about collectively as they hung around in the West Division race until the final week of the regular season. More specifically, the defensive line took a noticeable step forward getting after opposing quarterbacks, even if it wasn’t Cockran supplying the final blow as often as he did in 2013.

After bursting on the scene with a team-leading 7.5 sacks as a sophomore, Cockran had just four last season and also had just seven tackles for loss as a junior.

But while he occupied blockers, the rest of the unit was taking advantage and improving its sack total by nine from the previous season. When he forced some quicker throws that weren’t reflected on his stats sheet, a talented secondary was pouncing on mistakes and nabbing 15 interceptions. At the same time, Cockran was establishing himself as a leader in the trenches, a role that is more important than ever with the Gophers replacing two starters up front this spring as they gear up for another run at a division title this fall.

“With the numbers he had from his sophomore year, you would definitely have to pay attention to him and what he’s doing,” Gophers defensive line coach Jeff Phelps said. “That’s where we have to continue developing other guys around him as well, and that way they just can’t focus on him. If they do, then you have success with the guy on the other side or the guys up the middle as well.

“He really played well. The stats, you know how it is, you can swing those any way you want. It’s almost like a complex problem where everything has to time out just right for you to get the sack. I think if you look at the amount of times he got pressure on the quarterback, I think those would match up.”

Turning a few more of those close calls into sacks for Cockran, though, would surely provide a boost for the Gophers moving forward.

Some of the factors might be out of his hands, as he has no control over blocking schemes, three-step drops or anything else designed to limit his ability to slow down an offense. But Cockran has a lengthy list of things he can do himself right now, working on everything from his reaction time to fine-tuning his steps on the way to the quarterback during spring practice so he can disrupt those plans in the fall.

“I really try not to focus on my individual performance; I focus on what’s important for the team, what’s good for the defensive line,” Cockran said. “We made improvements as a defensive line, and that’s the most I could ask for.

“Now, knowing that this is the last year, I just want to leave on that good note.”

There’s already evidence that it won’t take huge individual numbers to deliver one.