The Big Ten is known for power running games behind massive offensive lines. This formula has worked well for Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan for years, but the Gophers have struggled in that regard since Laurence Maroney, Marion Barber III and Gary Russell left.
During the Glen Mason era, Minnesota had athletic system blockers, led by All-Americans Mark Setterstrom, Ben Hamilton and Greg Eslinger. Since then, the Gophers offensive line has been in constant flux.
Even by those standards, this season has been tumultuous. Head coach Jerry Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover have had to mix and match their front line.
“In all the years coach Limegrover’s been with me this may be his best coaching job, because not very many people can have a different offensive line every week and have some continuity,” Kill said.
The Gophers have had a different starting offensive line group in four of their 10 games this season, while having to make many in-game substitutions due to injuries.
These holes along the line have been plugged with undersized underclassmen. Some of them have experienced growing pains on the field.
“I think that I could take a whole group full of them from the Olsons, Lenkiewiczes — all those young offensive linemen, they’re all playing, they’re all young. I mean, everybody is young up in the offensive line except for two kids right now,” Kill said.
The linemen who have sustained injuries are: Jimmy Gjere (head), Josh Campion (head), Ed Olson (quadriceps), Tommy Olson (ankle) and Zach Mottla (head).
The injuries have been only part of the shift on the offensive line. Inconsistent play has forced Kill and Limegrover to bring in fresh bodies able to execute their offensive schemes.
In total, they’ve used 10 different offensive linemen so far this season.
Senior Chris Bunders has been the only constant on the line, but he has had to shift from his natural position of left guard to right tackle since Gjere sustained a concussion in early October.
“It’s fun. I like the challenge being able to play tackle and guard,” Bunders said. “A lot of guys have been able to step up and fill in when we’ve needed it. We have a great coach that comes out and teaches everybody, not just the starters — everybody.”
Two of those young players that have stepped up and filled in are redshirt freshmen Caleb Bak and Zac Epping. Epping has started the last six games at right guard, while Bak just entered the lineup at left guard two games ago after Tommy Olson hurt his ankle.
“[The coaches] do a good job preparing you and preparing the backups. You get in there and you’re ready to play,” Bak said.
Kill had high praises for Bak in his Nov. 1 press conference.
“It’s an amazing story,” Kill said. “When you’ve got a young man, Caleb Bak, who hasn’t been playing at all and not getting a lot of practice reps and he plays for three quarters and finds a way to get it done and you’re able to protect the passer and give him time. It’s really kind of an amazing deal.”
The Gophers’ offensive line has played through some of its injuries as well. Ed Olson had to yield to Marek Lenkiewicz because of a quad injury but returned the next game to start.
“We don’t treat it like someone is a new guy. We always practice together, we’re in film together, we all treat each other like we’re all on the first line, and that makes it a nice transition,” Ed Olson said.
Olson’s younger brother, Tommy, came to Minnesota a year after his brother Ed. He is one of the freshmen getting time on the field, and he said he is enjoying the opportunity to line up next to his brother.
“It’s a dream come true. We talked about it all the time — middle school, high school, now here. We’ve always talked about coming here and playing next to each other. It’s something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives,” Tommy Olson said.
Each of the players — even the younger group — has to prepare each week as though they will play. The coaching staff hasn’t had the luxury of being able to redshirt most of the younger players. Many of them could use that year to build up proper muscle for the Big Ten in an ideal situation.
Limegrover has had the task of preparing all his players to get into game action against more experienced Big Ten competition.
“You try to get guys ready at multiple positions, you try to get the guys you have in there comfortable with each other,” Limegrover said. “I’m just trying to get a group out to practice each day and make it to Saturday.”
Minnesota does have a handful of young players who are getting time to develop off the field including another pair of brothers. Kyle and Luke McAvoy will most likely be redshirted along with a small handful of others.
The Gophers also have commitments from two highly-touted high school prospects: Isaac Hayes, who is an ESPN top-150 recruit, and 6-foot-8-inch, 300-pound Jonah Pirsig from Blue Earth, Minn.
The group will in all likelihood continue to have fluctuations in its play, but is also gaining game experience playing at a Division I level against some of the most talented players in the nation.
UMN students have traveled to Florida colleges to collaborate with students on various projects.
When UMN students plan for a vacation, having trip cancellation travel insurance is a worthwhile commodity to check out.
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