Breaking down the Gophers OL: Ed Olson set to lead developing group
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Each Tuesday and Thursday until the Gophers football team opens fall camp on Aug. 1, 1500ESPN.com's Nate Sandell breaks down the "U" roster position-by-position, with input from conversations with coach Jerry Kill, as well as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
On the roster
• Ed Olson -- RS Junior, 6-foot-7, 312-pounds, Mahtomedi, Minn.
• Zach Mottla -- RS Junior, 6-2, 290, Edina, Minn.
• Zac Epping -- RS Sophomore, 6-2, 310, Kenosha, Wis.
• Caleb Bak -- RS Sophomore, 6-3, 290, Columbia Heights, Minn.
• Jimmy Gjere -- RS Sophomore, 6-7, 328, New Brighton, Minn.
• Marek Lenkiewicz -- RS Sophomore, 6-5, 275, Tinley Park, Ill.
• Sean Ferguson -- RS Sophomore, 6-6, 300, Philadelphia, Penn.
• Tommy Olson -- Sophomore, 6-4, 295, Mahtomedi, Minn.
• Foster Bush -- RS Freshman, 6-5, 300, Menasha, Wis.
• Josh Campion -- RS Freshman, 6-5, 315, Fergus Falls, Minn.
• Jon Christenson -- RS Freshman, 6-4, 290, Minnetonka, Minn.
• Luke McAvoy -- RS Freshman, 6-5, 285, Bloomington, Ill.
• Joe Bjorklund - RS Freshman, 6-5, 295, Rosemount, Minn.
• Kyle McAvoy -- RS Freshman, 6-5, 305, Bloomington, Ill.
• Ernie Heifort -- RS Freshman, 6-5, 250, Bemidji, Minn.
• Jonah Pirsig -- Freshman, 6-9, 295, Blue Earth, Minn.
• Isaac Hayes -- Freshman, 6-2, 275, Brooklyn Park, Minn.
• Ben Lauer -- Freshman, 6-6, 265, Plymouth, Minn.
• Brian Bobek -- Transfer from Ohio State, 6-2, 275, Inverness, Ill. (Must sit out season due to NCAA transfer regulations.)
• Chris Bunders -- A three-year starter, Bunders was essential in salvaging some stability on a precariously youthful offensive line last season. After being used mainly as a guard in 2009 and 2010, Bunders shifted to right tackle six games into his senior season to fill a gaping hole left by injuries and inexperience. He went on to earn All-Big Ten honorable mention honors.
• Ryan Wynn -- Started all 12 games at center for the Gophers in 2011.
• Ryan Orton -- Appeared in 10 games in 2011, starting at right guard for the first four weeks of the season.
Offensive coordinator/line coach Matt Limegrover inherited a group in 2011 dotted with glimmers of potential, but severely hindered by a lack of experience. With almost no depth to speak of, it wasn't shocking Limegrover's hand was forced for the majority of the season, requiring him to insert a slew of different combinations. The Gophers used five redshirt freshmen -- Gjere, Epping, Bak, Lenkiewicz and Ferguson -- and one true freshman, Tommy Olson. As the group spent the season adapting to the style and physicality of the Big Ten, the Gophers struggled to find continuity at all five positions. The Gophers allowed only 22 sacks - fifth fewest in the conference -- but the absence of stability throughout the offense stymied production in both the run game and through the air.
The need to use so many underclassmen -- many of whom were called upon before they were truly ready -- does have its upside going forward. The Gophers still have a line that heavily skews young, but with eight players returning with in-game experience, there is a solid level of competition that didn't exist in 2011. In other words, Limegrover now has options. Concerns within the coaching staff about depth on the line have softened, replaced with a confidence that the unit is starting to establish signs of cohesion.
"We've gotten bigger and stronger up front," coach Jerry Kill said during an interview with 1500ESPN.com in June. "I'm not one that really worries about (who starts). I worry about being two-deep, because in the Big Ten you're going to get banged up and you're going to get injured and you're going to have issues, but you better have the next guy ready to step in.
"I feel good about where we're at. It's a young offensive line, but I think they've gotten better and I like the competition we have there."
Limegrover hasn't solidified a complete starting five, though he has given strong indications of who he is expecting to be the main sources of production. As with many position groups on offense, the Gophers are at least a year away from finding a set group of starters. However, Limegrover does have close to a dozen players who can be firmly included in the conversation.
The fate of the Gophers' offensive line this season starts with junior Ed Olson. In the absence of any seniors, Olson is the elder statesman and captain of the line. Olson soldiered through a 2011 season clouded by personal struggles, bogged down by the hardships of learning a new offensive system and a tendency to try to do too much. His struggles culminated with Limegrover's decision to shift Olson to a reserve role for the final two games against Northwestern and Illinois after starting the first 10 at left tackle with wavering success.
"He wanted to be perfect at what he had already learned and he wanted to start being perfect at the stuff I was doing. It almost got to the point that he just couldn't get anymore into his head," Limegrover said. "He got to where he wasn't doing anything very good. At that point I had to pull him out and say 'Hey, you're not helping us win games.'"
The sour ending didn't faze Olson. Days after the season ended in late-November, Olson initiated a meeting with Limegrover to pinpoint what had gone wrong and what he needed to change. What followed was a winter spent engaged in a strict strength and conditioning regimen, making time to relearn the ins and outs of the Gophers' offensive scheme. By spring, Olson was up nearly 15 pounds, weighing in at a reported 312. Equipped with an understanding that he is being looked upon to front the developing line, Olson displayed upgraded confidence and awareness throughout spring practice.
With Olson plugged in at left tackle, the Gophers are hoping to benefit from his well-founded connection with younger brother and fellow lineman Tommy Olson by keeping the pair side-by-side, with Tommy starting at left guard. Separated in age by two years, the Olson brothers, who have a close off-field relationship, played next to each other sporadically in 2011, but it is now expected to be an everyday occurrence. Tommy played in 11 games last season, starting three games at left guard.
Moving across the line, center is where the main source of competition begins. Redshirt junior Mottla, who appeared in six games in 2011 as a reserve, was used in the middle with the first team offense for the majority of the spring. That doesn't mean the position is his. Originally recruited as a center, Epping was slotted primarily as the Gophers' starting right guard last season. The 20-year-old redshirt sophomore is projected to start again in 2012, though at what position remains up to discussion. Limegrover has contemplated moving Epping back to center, leaving an opening at right guard for Bak or Bjorklund. Both scenarios are passable, but Mottla's increased workload at center in the spring makes it appear that the Gophers are gearing up to keep Epping at guard. Christensen, who remains slightly undersized at 6-foot-4 and 290 pounds, made significant strides in learning the offense in the spring and could factor in as a reserve at center. Hayes, an incoming freshman from St. Thomas Academy, is being floated as a backup option, but he's likely to take a redshirt.
Right tackle is the biggest question mark entering fall camp. Gjere earned the job during fall camp in 2011 and started the first five games before a concussion suffered on Oct. 1 against Michigan ended his season. Campion, who was moved to tackle after practicing last season at guard, would have been in the mix to play as a freshman if he too hadn't been derailed by a concussion, which occurred prior to the season. After enduring various post-concussion symptoms in the offseason, Gjere and Campion have finally been cleared for full contact. The pair, along with the redshirt freshman Bush, will be locked in a battle for the top spot. Gjere has above-average athleticism and stamina for a guy who weighs in at a group-high 328 pounds, and he showed in the four games prior to his injury that he has the ability to match up with Division I FBS-level competition. Campion's size and quickness makes him a good fit at tackle as he moves well in space. Bush shouldn't be counted out, especially if Campion or Gjere's symptoms flare up again. Bush, who can also play at guard as well, has earned the favor of Limegrover with his rapid progression even though he entered the spring recovering from minor offseason knee surgery. If he continues that trajectory in camp, the starting role could be his.
Lenkiewicz will factor in as one of the Gophers' top backups on the line. He started the final two games of the season in place of Olson at left tackle. Size remains an issue for him as he is still trying to bulk up from his listed weight of 275 pounds. Ferguson, one year removed from his move from the defensive tackle to offensive tackle, has grown into the position as he expressed in the spring an increased understanding of what is expected of him. The line's other pair of brothers, Luke and Kyle McAvoy, will have an opportunity to jockey for playing time. Luke adds a bit of depth on the backend at tackle, while Kyle is part of the scramble at guard. After making the switch from tight end to the offensive line, Heifort surprised Limegrover with his strong showing in the spring on the edge. Again, size could be a deterrent -- he is listed at 250 pounds. Pirsig, one of the highlights of Kill's first recruiting class, has the makeup to be a future mainstay on the line, which holds with the Gophers' desire to keep a redshirt on him in 2012.
Jerry Kill's take on ... Ed Olson
"I think he stepped up his game in the spring. He got stronger. He's quicker. He takes great pride in his game. He had a great spring. He really did. I think he has had a great summer. He told me the other day he is 310, 312. He's helping himself. He's stronger than he was a year ago and that will make him a better football player and he's done a good job of leading our group in the summer."
Though there is layer of experience spread throughout the line that wasn't there last season, the youthful Gophers will reasonably still have fight through an array of growing pains and developmental issues, especially early in the season, as the communication among all five positions continues to develop.
Ed Olson is set up be drastically improved, and that should help anchor upgrades at the four other positions. It is essential that Limegrover quickly finds a combination that works in order to establish a stable comfort level between the line and starting quarterback MarQueis Gray -- a task the "U" offensive coordinator is well aware of.
"MarQueis could be a special player, but if the O-line isn't very good, he's going to be an average player," Limegrover said.
The Gophers' front line is likely to finish ranked in the bottom half of the Big Ten again this year, but they have enough options to continue tracking upward. They will be aided in 2013 by the addition of Bobek, a former four-star prospect who opted to transfer in June from Ohio State to the Gophers.
Position-by-position series recap
Day 1: Quarterbacks -- MarQueis Gray headed for a 'breakout year?'
Day 2: Running backs -- James Gillum makes bid for top spot
Day 3: Wide receivers -- Search is on for a go-to threat
Day 4: Tight ends -- Is John Rabe the offense's 'secret weapon?'