Injuries force Gophers to continue making changes to offensive line
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Gophers coach Jerry Kill didn't get much of a chance if any, to relish the significance of his team becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2009 after a grinding 17-3 victory at Illinois last Saturday.
By the bus ride to the airport, Kill was already beset by concerns about the outlook of his offensive line, having lost two centers to injuries hours earlier.
Starting center Jon Christenson had already been sidelined in the first half with an ankle sprain when backup Zach Mottla suffered what turned out to be a season-ending break in his left leg. Suddenly, the Gophers were close to reaching disaster status, down to their third and final options a center with only a seven-point lead in the fourth quarter.
As Mottla was being taken off the field on a medical cart, Kill scrambled to figure out how he was going to plug the vacant spot. He asked Christenson first if there was any way he would be able to go back in, but when it was obvious he couldn't, Kill quickly motioned for Zac Epping to get ready.
"I didn't even realize I was going to go in at center until the coaches told me to go snap," Epping said.
Epping shifted over to the middle from his starting spot at left guard as redshirt freshman Joe Bjorklund came off the bench to line up at left guard. Luckily for the Gophers, the versatile Epping had started four games at center earlier in the season, and was able to provide the emergency relief needed to buoy the offense in the game's stretch run.
"Going through three centers in a football game and winning the game, that's unheard of," Kill said.
With Mottla out for the year and Christenson highly questionable, Epping is geared up to start at center when the Gophers travel to face No. 16 Nebraska on Saturday. Though a starter is in place, the backup plan if Epping goes down with an injury is still a work in progress.
The only players outside of Epping who have taken snaps at center in practice this season are either sitting out the year due to NCAA transfer regulations (sophomore Brian Bobek or are redshirting (freshman Isaac Hayes). The Gophers have been liberal in taking off redshirts midseason (see: Philip Nelson, Rodrick Williams Jr. and Lincoln Plsek), but Kill ensures that is no longer a possibility with two games left.
That means somebody on the Gophers' offensive line has one week to learn how to play center.
The likely candidates are sophomore Tommy Olson and his brother, junior left tackle Ed Olson. Both took snaps in practice on Tuesday. Though Ed was an All-State center at Mahtomedi High School, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover labeled him as an emergency option, while Tommy is currently "Plan B" behind Epping.
"It's not something that is completely out of the picture," Limegrover said. "The tough thing for (Ed) is with calls and things. If the roof completely falls in we'll throw him in. He's a big body."
All of these plans are being made with the assumption that both Tommy and Ed Olson will be healthy enough to play on Saturday. Tommy, who started the year as a starter at left guard, has rarely played since the fourth week of the season because of a high ankle sprain, though he has practiced for the last three weeks. Meanwhile, Ed has sat out four straight games with a similar ankle injury, returning to practice early last week.
The most probable scenario if both are healthy is that Ed will split time with Marek Lenkiewicz at left tackle, with Tommy available to step back in at left guard or fill in if needed at center.
Though Christenson did not practice Tuesday, the Gophers have not ruled out him out.
"There's a lot of week left," Limegrover said. "That kid is pretty remarkable as far as some of the injuries that he's had and been able to get back quickly on."
However, barring a rapid recovery by Christenson, the Gophers are set to sport their sixth different starting lineup on the offensive line with freshman quarterback Philip Nelson taking snaps from Epping.
The rash of injuries that has hindered the line has spread throughout the offense. The Gophers have had 13 offensive players miss games because of injuries this season, seven of which are either still questionable out for the year - Mottla, Christenson Ed and Tommy Olson and wide receivers A.J. Barker (ankle), Derrick Engel (hamstring) and Jamel Harbison (out with an ACL tear).
Even Kill has been left startled by the Gophers' expansive health woes.
"This is the first time in 30 years (of coaching) that I've experienced the injury bug on the offensive side like we've got," Kill said.
Relief is in sight for the Gophers, however. They have been able to slowly stabilize themselves. The offensive line has produced three of its best games in consecutive weeks as the unit has started to display palpable continuity, despite the injuries. Kill said Tuesday he was uncertain Barker and Engel would be able to return this week, but the availability of even just one of the two would be a notable boost for the thin receiving corps.
• Mottla underwent surgery on Tuesday to deal with his broken leg, Kill confirmed. No timetable has been set for the redshirt junior's post-surgery recovery, though the team hopes he can available for portions of winter workouts and the start of spring practice in March.
"He's doing good. He's being positive about it," said Epping, who has talked with Mottla several times since the injury. "Obviously, it's going to be rough on him, but he's hanging in there."
• Freshman inside receiver K.J. Maye did not reenter last Saturday's game after taking a heavy blow to the chest by Illinois linebacker Ashante Williams early in the third quarter. However, it doesn't appear to be a lingering injury as Kill said Tuesday Maye is "fine."
After Maye went down, sophomore Marcus Jones filled in as the Gophers' motion receiver, while senior Brandon Green also handled some inside crossing routes. The move proved to be crucial. Green hauled in a pass on 3rd down and 14 that put the Gophers inches from a first down. They converted on 4th down, and four plays later running back Donnell Kirkwood ran in the Gophers' first touchdown.
• If Nelson is feeling any increased pressure to spark the inconsistent Gopher offense, Kill hasn't sensed it.
"He doesn't say too much," Kill said. "I don't know what he says to you all. He just goes out and plays."