Gophers O-line notebook: Brian Bobek's status for camp in question
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MINNEAPOLIS -- For much of the 2012 season, the outlook for the Minnesota Gophers along the offensive line underwent a multitude of tweaks and alterations, many of which were forced by injuries.
Since the onset of spring practice four months ago, the Gophers have had to continue to adapt to unforeseen developments, as the offensive line strives towards developing into a formidable unit in the Big Ten and cultivating the depth that has started to emerge throughout the group.
Those modifications, some of which have again been set into motion by injuries, will be on display when the Gophers open fall camp next week.
The current situation at center holds the most intrigue on the O-line.
In an unfortunate development for the Gophers, the health status of center Brian Bobek, who sat out last season after transferring from Ohio State, remains highly in question. Early in spring practice, Bobek was sidelined due to what at first appeared to be a general illness. But it was later found to be a serious virus that had infected the area in and around his heart.
The issue remains unresolved. Bobek has been working with team doctors, trainers and a heart specialist but has not yet been cleared to return to practice.
Coach Jerry Kill confirmed Monday that Bobek is "questionable" for training camp. Bobek will meet with doctors within the next two weeks to get a firmer idea of a timetable of when he could return.
Offensive coordinator and O-line coach Matt Limegrover is staying optimistic about Bobek being available this season, but he is preparing his line as if it will be without the 6-foot-2, 282-pound junior.
"I wish I had an answer to it. I'm proceeding as though he won't, but I would like to be pleasantly surprised," said Limegrover, who spoke with Bobek about the situation last weekend.
Bobek, a widely heralded pickup for the Gophers after he left Ohio State, was being targeted early in the offseason by the coaching staff to compete heavily with redshirt sophomore Jon Christenson for the starting role at center.
Without Bobek, at least in the short term and possibly longer, the Gophers' plans at center have taken on another layer.
Knowing midway through the spring that Bobek's status had grown cloudy, Limegrover began to make adjustments to guard against a situation like last season when the Gophers were hindered by sorely limited depth at center. While Christenson and versatile redshirt junior Zac Epping both have starting experience at center, Limegrover wanted to ensure he had backup options.
Limegrover approached junior Tommy Olson in the offseason with the instructions to start preparing himself for the possibility of taking over center responsibilities.
"I said 'Don't limit yourself. You know you can play the guard spots. You've been doing it for two years, put everything into being a center,'" Limegrover explained to Olson.
Olson started nine games at left guard in his first two years on campus, but began taking a backseat in the latter half of the 2012 season. After a strong performance in the spring and in summer workouts, Olson's best opportunity to break back into the main O-line rotation will be at center. He is expected to be one of four or five players taking snaps at center when camp opens.
Redshirt sophomore Ernie Heifort started taking snaps at center late in the spring, and is shaping up to likely be the Gophers' third or fourth-team option.
Incoming freshman Matt Leidner, the younger brother of quarterback Mitch Leidner, is also in play at center. In all likelihood Leidner will take a redshirt in his first year, like his fellow O-line freshmen (Alex Mayes and Chad Fahning), with the Gophers equipped with depth they didn't have in the first two years under Kill. But Leidner is a guy who can serve to fill a need in practice and in the long-term.
"There's no use in bumping him over (to another position) right now. His best thing is to do the best he can learning the offense at center," Limegrover said.
Christenson's impressive breakout showing for the Gophers when he was called upon to quickly learn to play at center in the second half of last season has him looking to be situated atoptop of the depth chart. Christenson has bolstered his weight to around 306-pounds and has developed a solid rapport with quarterback Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner.
An ankle injury slowed Christenson in the spring, and eventually resulted in surgery. But he is expected to be fully ready for camp. Christenson has the experience and ability to log time at guard, but the Gophers want him to keep him cemented at center.
"With Brian Bobek's status being uncertain, if there is any guy I want day in and day out being a center right now it's Jon," Limegrover said. "Jon could play guard if he needed to ... But he's taken so much to playing center."
Although Epping is most ideal at guard, he continued to take multiple reps at center in spring practice and will be an option in the middle again come fall camp. After starting eight games in 2011, Epping started last year atop the depth chart at right guard. But various injuries on the line led to him being shifted to center, an unfamiliar position at the time, for seven games, while also playing at left guard for four starts.
The Gophers would like to keep Epping at guard if possible, but there is a legitimate possibility that he could end up logging time again at center.
"Epping is a better guard than he is a center, so he needs to stay at guard as much as he can," Limegrover said. "I'm not saying he won't end up at center, but right now to give us the best chance to win one of those guys, whether it's Jon, Tommy, Ernie or whoever, needs to be our center and (Epping) needs to stay at guard."
In a scenario where Epping is able to stay at guard, a depth chart order of Christenson, Olson and Heifort seems to be the most realistic. But Christenson is not untouchable in his spot, and the Gophers must brace for the possibility of injuries -- Injuries forced the Gophers to use five different starting line combinations last season.
An increase of suitable options at both left and right guard has made all of these moves at center possible. Epping and redshirt junior Caleb Bak have two years of experience at guard, and redshirt sophomore Joe Bjorklund and redshirt freshman Isaac Hayes took notable developmental leaps in the spring.
Whatever ends up happening at center, the excuses for the Gophers' offensive line are gone. Now in the third year of Kill's overhaul of the Gophers, the O-line has progressed the furthest of any position group on the offense. But those developments have to start showing more tangible in-game results in order to stabilize an offense that has been marred by struggles for the last two seasons.
Mottla makes a tough decision
In the wake of a difficult rehab from a severely broken leg suffered in November, center Zach Mottla's playing career has come to a sad conclusion.
Mottla, who rose from being a walk-on in 2009 to starting last year at center, worked tirelessly in the months after his injury against Illinois to make a comeback. But after enduring another setback earlier in the summer in his already slow rehab process, Mottla made the tough decision to back down from his aspirations of playing again in his final year of eligibility.
"What he sacrificed and what he did as a walk-on to put himself into a position to do what he did and contribute for us, it was nothing short of remarkable," Limegrover said. "It had so much to do with that the kid loved playing the game, he loved everything about it. That's what's going to be tough for him. That's a huge void ... If he could (play) he would, but it's just not lining up for him."
"What it came down to was that he said, 'You know what? I just have to get this thing right for the rest of my life.'"
Mottla has already graduated with a degree in business and marketing education. The Gophers are leaving the door open for Mottla to return in an advisory capacity this season, much like Kill did when O-lineman Jimmy Gjere chose to retire last season due to lingering concussion issues.
• Offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig is "on track" to be ready when camp opens, following surgery in the spring to correct an ongoing issue with his knee cap. But watch for him to be eased back into the rotation at tackle. The Gophers have enough guys already in place that can allow Pirsig to be cautious not to try coming back too quickly.
In the last year, the Gophers have begun to cultivate legitimate options across the offensive line. That depth is much needed as the Gophers continue to be forced by injuries to make tweaks to their plans.