Gophers' Tommy Olson adding intrigue to position battle at center
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Spring practice had just concluded, and Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover knew he had to have another option at center if his line wanted a chance at thriving come fall.
Jon Christenson had excelled at the position in the latter half of the 2012 season and ended the spring atop the depth chart. But with senior Zach Mottla's career brought to an unfortunate end by a broken leg and Brian Bobek's future unclear because of a viral infection that had spread to his heart, the Gophers were in need of depth at the one point on the line in question
Limegrover turned to junior Tommy Olson.
After spending his first two seasons at left guard, the Gophers wanted him to slide over one spot. Limegrover, who also serves at the O-line coach, gave him one task for the offseason: Take as many snaps as possible at center.
Olson, a starter in nine games in the last two years at left guard, immediately set off on learning his new position. Apart from reps in captains' practices, the 6-foot-4, 301-pound took snaps whenever he could. While at home in the summer, Olson routinely had his brother, left tackle Ed Olson, and his dad line up behind him in the family's backyard to field the ball.
The high volume of offseason work has helped ease his transition into fall camp. Three practices in, Olson has been taking his first snaps with the full team. There have been plenty of miscues, but he is catching on quickly.
"Anything to get on the field I'll do it. Coach Limegrover told me to work at it and I did," Olson said Sunday. "The snapping part is pretty difficult, different steps compared to guard ... "It's coming along. I had a couple rough ones (today), but it's coming."
Olson's is coming off a difficult sophomore campaign in which he battled injuries throughout the season. Although Olson, in his straight-forward, hard-working demeanor, is never one to bring excuses into the mix, an ankle injury suffered in the fourth week of the season set off an almost season-long struggle of trying to work his way back to full strength.
While still hampered by an ailing foot, Olson started the final two games of the regular season in large part out of necessity, with the rest of the line also depleted. Olson finally started to feel like himself again during the run-up to the Gophers' bowl appearance, but by the time that happened his spot had already been filled.
"You always try to work hard, but sometimes you're mentally overthinking some plays," Olson said. "I had that injury that kind of held me back at the start and I was kind of lagging behind all year with my foot. No excuses."
"Once I hit bowl practices I could finally go back at it 100 percent. I wasn't nicked up. But they already had the O-line set in stone, so I was starting to work for next year already."
And as Olson hinted, when Limegrover asked him to move positions, he realized not only would the switch help the team, but it could be his best opportunity to see playing time this season.
Olson started camp with the second team offense, but is in direct competition with Christenson. Limegrover has repeatedly insisted that, while Christenson has the experience advantage at center and the current overall edge, the starting spot is far from solidified.
Redshirt junior Zac Epping is capable of playing center, but the preference is to keep him at guard. Redshirt sophomore Ernie Heifort and freshman Matt Leidner are also taking snaps at center. Bobek still has not been cleared to practice and was left off the 105-man roster. If Bobek's illness keeps him sidelined, he will be a prime candidate for a medical redshirt.
Olson's proven adaptability is reassuring the coaching staff that they made the right call with the move.
"We moved him to center, because we needed the depth," Kill said. He's a good enough kid to do that. I think he's done a great job. He's bending better. As long as he doesn't get worn down - we have to be careful with that. He's done really good."
"It's all about trust. You know that Tommy Olson is going to do everything he can, and you trust that."
Current depth chart at center
1. Jon Christenson -- RS sophomore, 6-foot-4, 306-pounds
2. Tommy Olson -- Junior, 6-4, 301
3. Ernie Heifort -- RS sophomore, 6-5, 281
4. Matt Leidner -- Freshman, 6-2, 280