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Updated: August 14th, 2012 9:21pm
Refocused approach helps Ed Olson become standout on Gophers' O-line

Refocused approach helps Ed Olson become standout on Gophers' O-line

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The offseason was barely a week old when Ed Olson showed up at the office of Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover.

Something had to change, and Olson knew it.

Months of trying to do too much, too soon in the Gophers' new offensive system had finally overwhelmed the strong-minded lineman.

Two weeks before the end of the Gophers' dreary three-win 2011 season, after Olson had started the first 10 games at left tackle, Limegrover was forced to make a switch.

"He wanted to be perfect at what he had already learned and he wanted to start being perfect at the stuff I was doing," said Limegrover, who also serves as the team's O-line coach.

"It almost got to the point that he just couldn't get anymore into his head. He got to where he wasn't doing anything very good. At that point I had to pull him out and say 'Hey, you're not helping us win games.'"

Olson was upset with himself. He couldn't stand what happened in the waning weeks of the season, the missed blocks and botched assignments. Nothing would change, Olson figured, unless someone bluntly broke down where the flaws had occurred.

Limegrover was that person.

"Going in there, I said, 'Be honest with me,'" Olson said. "I took a lot of responsibility for (what had happened). ... I told him I want to be a great player here and told him to push me as hard as he can."

Sensing Olson's raw and open determination, Limegrover reciprocated frankly.

"He's such a proud kid," Limegrover said. "He felt really embarrassed and he said, 'I really don't want to go through that again.' So, basically, I said, 'OK. What we need to do is just start from scratch.'"

And Olson followed through.

As winter workouts began, he took the advice he was given. For several months, he set aside thoughts of offensive formations and blocking schemes.

Instead, he zeroed in on getting his body to better the fit parameters the Gophers badly needed on their youthful and undersized front line.

Slowly, a transformation took place. By the summer, the 6-foot-7 redshirt junior had upped his weight nearly 15 pounds to a solid 313 and developed a range of flexibility and agility that was absent before.

But while Olson's increased physical attributes are noteworthy, they have been partly eclipsed by his refreshed outlook. The clutter of thoughts that clouded his judgment and hindered many of his on-field actions last season have been streamlined.

More than a week into fall camp, Olson can be seen blocking quarterback MarQueis Gray's blindside with a level of fluidity and sharpness, his tendency to overthink gone.

Olson hasn't completely strayed from his self-critical nature, but he has learned to soften it -- a process that eluded him a year ago.

"When I would screw up last year, I would take it out on myself," Olson said. "I would be way too hard on myself. Coach Limegrover and I have been working on that. You know you're going to make a mistake. That's why I push myself as hard as I can now. If I make a mistake, it happens and I just keep going."

More than any other player on the Gophers offensive line, Olson has evolved into a Big Ten-caliber talent, putting himself on the short list of "U" players to watch in the season ahead.

The changes he has undergone have been felt the strongest by his younger brother Tommy, who not only starts alongside him on the line at left guard but is also never far from his side away from practice.

"I think last year, my brother just struggled with thinking too much," Tommy Olson said. "This year he's kind of letting loose and going, having fun and playing."

Described by coach Jerry Kill as a "completely different player," Ed Olson is the anchor on an offensive line that suddenly has a semblance of depth.

The line is still decidedly young, with no seniors and 16 of the 20 players on the camp roster redshirt sophomores or younger. However, though the group is at least a year away from matching the make-up that Kill and Limegrover are trying to create, the Gophers have an edge of experience on the line due in large part to their need to play a variety of guys last season, several before they were ready.

Even in the wake right tackle Jimmy Gjere's decision on Monday to retire from football because of recurring concussion symptoms, Limegrover has expressed confidence in an already fairly set 10-man rotation.

A bump in production and efficiency from the offensive line, even if it's slight, could alter the recently dismal fate of the Gophers' offense.

Opposing defenses ravaged the "U" line and the entire offense in 2011, holding the team to a Big Ten-worst 310.3 yards per game. Only nine NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision schools averaged fewer points than the Gophers (18.42).

Olson has become on the point man in the line's attempt to aid Gray and the offense in reversing their woes.

"He's a total lead-by-example guy," said starting center Zach Mottla, who is one of the unit's three juniors along with Olson and right guard Zac Epping.

"You look at him, he works his ass off all the time. He's always working hard. He's always in the film room. He's getting captains' practices together. He's a guy that everybody can look up to. He's really done a great job of taking a leadership role."

The true test for Olson will come when he is asked to help hold the line together as the Gophers traverse a difficult and imposing Big Ten schedule. But if fall camp is any indication, Olson is capable of being the guy to do so.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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