Gophers spring position breakdown: A look at the 'U' offensive line
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The Minnesota Gophers' offense was a mess of inconsistencies in 2012, caused in part by the midseason switch to freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, a thin wide receiving corps, a run game that chaotically shifted between effective and stagnate and an overall lack of cohesiveness. Progress in Jerry Kill's overhaul of the offense, now entering its third year of "rebuilding," has been seen, but it has shown up slowly.
No position group in the Gophers' offense has developed as solidly in the last two seasons as the offensive line. Depth has been an elusive trait for the offense, and that remains the case at several positions. But the Gophers exited spring practice with the realistic idea they are soundly two-deep at each position across O-line.
It is depth that was created by necessity. A week-to-week barrage of injuries kept the offensive line almost constantly in flux last season. With a line that had no seniors, the Gophers' used five different starting lineup combinations, with eight players who started in at least three games. Three of those starters were either sophomores (Tommy Olson) or redshirt freshmen (Jon Christenson and Josh Campion). The weekly shuffling of the lineup hindered the line's continuity during the season, but at the same time it has had the long-term effect of giving the Gophers a wider range of options and heightened competition for starting spots.
Injuries, however, won't stop haunting the group. Redshirt senior center Zach Mottla, who suffered a major fracture in his left leg Nov. 10 at Illinois, was held out for the entirety of spring ball as he continues his now-nearly six-month rehab. Mottla has recovered slowly, still requiring the support of a walking cane, but Kill is optimistic the three-game starter at center will be ready to return by fall camp. Starting left tackle Ed Olson underwent ankle surgery earlier in the year and also missed spring practice. Redshirt freshman tackle Jonah Pirsig joined Mottla and Olson on the sidelines at the end of the second week of practice due to reoccurring trouble with his left knee cap. Center Brian Bobek, the now eligible transfer from Ohio State, missed the majority of the spring with what the Gophers were saying was "due to illness." Bobek was usually with the line during practices but off to the side, donned in warm-up gear. Center/guard Jon Christenson battled a sprained ankle for the latter half of the spring, though it did not cause him to miss more than one practice.
Once again the rash of injuries allowed the Gophers to up the reps for the rest of the line, further bolstering their perceived depth. In turn, offensive coordinator and O-line coach Matt Limegrover feels his group accepted the injury and strengthened its identity around that notion.
"I think what's good about this spring is the guys are starting to learn, 'This is who we're going to be,'" Limegrover said. "So you're going to buy into the whole part of it, not just out here on the field, but in the weight room, taking care of yourself off the field nutritionally."
Redshirt junior Zac Epping was one of the few constants on the line last season, starting in all 13 games, growing into a critical role as the line's utility man. Epping started the year at right guard before shifting to center, a position he hadn't played before, due to an early injury to Mottla. He was moved to left guard for a brief stint, but was used at center in the Gophers' last three games. With Christenson and Bobek competing for the starting center gig, Epping will be able to move back to his preferred position at guard. Epping worked a bulk of his first-team reps in the spring at left guard, but he had to take several snaps at center when Bobek went and Christenson started being hampered by his bum ankle. Fellow 13-game starter Josh Campion a lengthy adjustment to his starting role at right tackle but played consistently strong in the latter part of the season. The redshirt sophomore's consistency has been enough to make him a near-lock to earn back his spot at right tackle. Pirsig and redshirt freshman Ben Lauer are next in line behind Campion. The 6-foot-9, 308-pound Pirsig seemed to have an edge on Lauer early in practice, but Lauer's increased reps after Pirsig went down due to injury could give him a slight lead by the start of fall camp.
On the opposite side of the line at left tackle, Ed Olson will easily retain his starting position for the fourth straight year as long as he remains healthy. Olson, after a rocky finish to his sophomore year, started becoming a stabilizing presence for the group in the first half of last season. Limegrover and Kill have both acknowledged Olson was performing at the highest rate they had seen from him before he was knocked out of the Gophers' 21-13 loss to Northwestern by injury. Olson returned for the Gophers' final three games, but he was never healthy enough to fully regain his early season form. For the line to take the step forward next season that it is capable of, the Gophers need Olson to be a key figure. Marek Lenkiewicz, who filled in when Olson was out last season, is the obvious second option at left tackle. The majority of his reps in the spring came with the first team offense.
Sorting through the potential combinations in the line's interior is less straightforward. In conversations with Limegrover before and during the early weeks of spring, indications were that in the long term the starting line would feature both Bobek and Christenson. After emerging late to compile a quality freshman season, Christenson has the versatility to play both center and guard, which is likely enough to solidify his starting status. Bobek, a former four-star prospect, has been the subject of his share of hype since transferring from Ohio State. Shifting him to guard isn't an option at this point. This increased the probability of a starting line featuring Bobek at center, Christenson moving to right guard and Epping taking the other guard slot. But Bobek proved to be a disappointment this spring, sitting out the majority of practice. The solution at center won't be found until fall camp, but Christenson left the spring having made a strong case for why he should be at center. Bobek is by no means out of the running for the starting gig and can grab a spot in training camp, but it will require a ferocity not seen from him to this point.
"He's such a laid back, such a nice kid. I have to get him to bite a little bit," Limegrover said. "I have to get a sense of urgency with him that 'Hey, you go out there and take care of business and I'll figure out what to do with the other four spots.'"
What Limegrover and the Gophers end up doing with Christenson and Bobek will determine what happens with the spare guard slot opposite Epping. Caleb Bak, a starter at right guard in the final 11 games of 2012, would seem to be the likely first choice. However, it's not as close to a certainty as the situation at tackle. There is the question of where junior Tommy Olson fits into the equation. Olson started the year at left guard next his brother, Ed, before his season was derailed by a persistent ankle injury. He returned to start the last two games of the regular season, but in a similar trajectory as his brother underwent in 2011, the younger Olson had burned out.
"He just ran out of gas," Limegrover said. "He's a good football player, but wasn't playing like a good football player because he couldn't get his body in the right spots where it needed to be. He is a kid that exerts so much energy each and every rep to be so perfect that sometimes he wears himself out."
Healthy again, Olson can be factor on the line next season, but the competition to get his spot back is much higher than it was a year ago. With appearances in five games as a freshman, redshirt sophomore Joe Bjorklund has put himself one injury or misstep by the players in front him away from moving up the depth chart. Bjorklund alternated reps between the first and second teams. Redshirt sophomore Foster Bush is also in the mix, but Bjorklund appears to be a step ahead. Isaac Hayes, after taking a redshirt last season, garnered praise from Limegrover in the spring and could crack the O-line rotation. Up nearly 30-pounds from a year ago, the 6-foot-2, 304-pound guard worked primarily with the second team unit during spring ball. Hayes has shown enough progress to be in the rotation, but the experience of the guys in front of him will make it challenging for him to move up right away.
Again, the crucial factor in the success of the "U" O-line next season relies on its overall health. It's inevitable that another batch of injuries will crop up, but the Gophers have built up enough resources to lessen the impact the lack of fluidity had on the unit in 2012. In effort to better protect themselves from injury concerns, the Gophers moved redshirt sophomore Ernie Heifort to center this spring. Epping is still available to play at center, which he did periodically in spring practice, but the idea is for Heifort to be the third option behind Christenson and Bobek.
"I'd like to have six centers, so that we never have happen what happened last year," remarked Limegrover remarked, only semi-jokingly.
Projected two-deep after spring practice
LT: Ed Olson (RS senior, 6-foot-7, 309 lbs.)/Marek Lenkiewicz (RS junior, 6-5, 289)
LG: Zac Epping (RS junior, 6-2, 321)/Tommy Olson (Junior, 6-4, 301)
C: Jon Christenson (RS sophomore, 6-4, 306)/Brian Bobek (Junior, 6-2, 282)
RG: Caleb Bak (RS junior, 6-3, 302)/Joe Bjorklund (RS sophomore, 6-5, 288)
RT: Josh Campion (RS sophomore, 6-5, 326)/ Jonah Pirsig (RS freshman, 6-9, 308)
1. Alex Mayes (6-5, 285, Van Alstyne, Texas)
2. Chad Fahning (6-6, 270, St. Paul, Minn.)
3. Matt Leidner (6-2, 280, Lakeville, Minn.)