Gophers O-line standout Zac Epping's stay at center may be extended
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Overshadowed by the Gophers' temporary, at least for now, quarterback transition has been the switch that has occurred at center.
Redshirt sophomore Zac Epping has quietly emerged as the versatile standout on the "U" offensive line. As a result, Epping, dubbed by coach Jerry Kill as the team's "best offensive lineman," has seen his role within the unit quickly become more prominent.
When redshirt junior center Zach Mottla was sidelined early last week with a high ankle sprain, Epping was shifted over to replace him from his starting spot at right guard.
If you forgive the line for a brief, early rash of false starts, Epping's starting center debut last Saturday against Western Michigan went smoothly, especially given that the Gophers had to undergo a mid-game quarterback change.
"He was doing great at guard and then we asked him to move over and play center," said offensive coordinator and O-line coach Matt Limegrover, agreeing with the praise given by Kill.
"In his first start he's got a 300-pounder breathing down his neck for the entire game and did a good job. Snaps were good. He's really becoming the leader of that group. Now that he's the center it's even more important."
The 6-foot-2, 310-pound Epping hadn't played center until Kill's staff arrived a year ago and requested he know multiple position. During his freshman season in 2011, he played sporadically at both positions before starting the final seven games at right guard. Though he admits he prefers right guard, Epping is slowly becoming comfortable being one spot over.
"He's just a guy that can do a lot of things," Kill said. "Plus he's physically tough. He'll battle you. He's strong. He's got good feet. He's just a good, hard-nosed, tough kid. That's the kind of kid you want."
Epping could be at center for a while. Mottla has not fully recovered from the sprain and is questionable to be ready when the Gophers meet Syracuse Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium. He practiced Tuesday and Wednesday, though he was hindered slightly by the injury.
But even if Mottla was healthy, it appears Limegrover may have found a combination on the line that he enjoys more. Situated next Epping last Saturday, redshirt sophomore Caleb Bak, who entered the season as a backup, filled the vacancy at right guard.
A strong, relatively mistake-free performance bolstered Bak's standing on the line, which makes it far easier to keep Epping where he is for now.
Limegrover said that Epping will remain at center until Mottla is deemed to be back to "100 percent," at which point the situation will be reevaluated.
With the way Epping has been playing, by no means is this seismic shift in direction. This the way the offensive line was in Limegrover's words "pretty close" to looking like coming out of fall camp - LT Ed Olson; LG Tommy Olson; C Epping; RG Bak; RT Josh Campion.
However, Mottla made a late push to secure his spot in the starting rotation, leaving Limegrover less inclined to shake up the depth chart before Week 1.
"Mottla was playing well and Zac Epping was playing well at guard," Limegrover said. "With that in mind, there wasn't any reason to make that change. Caleb Bak did come along and I knew that somewhere down the line Epping was going to be in that mix (at center)."
Epping has indeed surfaced at the forefront of that mix. How long will the changes last? If Epping stays at a high caliber of play and Bak continues his development then it would be difficult to justify shaking up lineup again unless it became a necessity.