I have always held the belief that the two keys to success in college football, particularly in the Big Ten, is offensive line and veteran quarterbacks. Great football teams need much more but I think one can have a bowl caliber team with these two key ingredients compensating for other areas of weakness.
The Gophers are rather young on both fronts here. Much of the growing pains of 2012 can be attributed to playing a true freshman quarterback for the latter half of the season and mixing and matching a young and often injured offensive line. The team was good enough to get to the magical 6-win mark, but these two position groups are poised to be pretty good over the next few years; maybe even a real strength. Philip Nelson is the man under center and likely will be for through 2015, his development can be a topic for another day. Today I'm going to focus on the offensive line.
This unit, more than any other on the team, is the position group that excites me the most. Not that I wake up giddy about watching offensive line play, but I believe this group to be a unique combination of being young, talented and experienced. This should be a very good unit for the next few years and give the Gophers a chance to make a move up the Big Ten ladder. The addition of Berkley Edwards is great but add in the fact that I believe he'll have one of the best lines in the conference opening holes for him makes him that much better. Same can be said for Nelson, assuming his line is able to give him ample time he should be able to play with a bit more confidence and security.
There are 9 guys on the roster who have seen action, 7 who have made at least 3 starts. Add to those 9 a transfer from Ohio State who had to sit out 2012, three redshirt freshmen who have some nice potential and then a true freshman who isn't going to be in the 2013 plans but is clearly a piece of the future puzzle. 10 guys who have some level of Big Ten experience, 7 of those guys with multiple starts and only 2 of them are seniors. This is the unique blend of experience and underclassmen that not only has me excited for 2013 but there is a foundation here to have a very good offensive line for the next several seasons.
This is going to be a short list. One is a valuable walk-on and the other has been a fixture at LT, when healthy.
LT - Ed Olson - Started as a redshirt freshman at the premier position along the line. Olson has made 27 starts over his three year career. Injuries have slowed him some and I think it is safe to say that his development has been slower than most of us had originally hoped when earned the starting LT spot in game 1 of his redshirt freshman season. There were a few coy remarks about some competition for the LT spot and uncertainty about who will own it, but I think most believe Olson will be starting there when the Gophers host UNLV.
Olson showed a ton of promise as a freshman and whether it be injuries or stagnation, we've been waiting for that dominating season ever since. Assuming he is healthy, we could still see it in 2013.
OC - Zach Mottla - The only other senior on the roster and Mottla is a walk-on center who was called into quite a bit of duty last season playing in 7 games and starting 3 before suffering a season ending injury. I thought Mottla did a pretty good job at center last year when called upon. I would be surprised to see him starting this year with the first team line but I think he adds great value as an experienced reserve should injuries pop up. Mottla is an Edina native and earned the cover pic on this post because it is one of my favorite shots I've snapped while on the Gopher sidelines.
There could be anywhere from 3 or 4 starters coming from this group of five juniors. It is likely that the starting interior linemen will all be from this class.
OG - Zach Epping - This versatile junior has played in 25 games and started 21 over two seasons making starts at RG, C and LG. Epping also earned praise from the coaching staff near the end of last year as the team's best offensive lineman. Enough said? Phil Steele gave Epping a nod as a 4th team All-Big Ten-er heading into the season. He has been one of the few healthy guys in this group having started 21 consecutive games. The only reason you cannot write in Epping as a starter with a Sharpe is because I'm not sure which position he'll be at. My initial guess is RG, but it really depends on what happens at LG and C. Personally I love Epping's toughness on the field, he is a stud and will begin to really stand out this year.
OG - Tommy Olson - brother to Ed and the younger Olson has also missed time due to injuries. When healthy he typically is the Gopher's starting LG. Olson has started 9 games and participated in 18 during his two-year career. Olson is a mauler out there and, like his brother, if he is healthy he should be primed to have an outstanding season.
Assuming some level of health across the rest of the line, I expect to see Epping and Olson lock down the guard spots for 2013 and 2014 before giving way to some talented underclassmen.
OC - Brian Bobek - This is the Ohio State transfer who had to sit out 2012. There is some excitement in anticipation of Bobek starting at Center for the Gophers. But I don't think he is a lock to be the #1 guy. Mottla did a nice job at center and Epping was rather good at center last year. Bobek has yet to earn it and he has been fighting some injuries throughout the year. Out of high school Bobek was a first team all-stater in Illinois, he was an Army All-American along with a handful of other All-American honors. The four-star recruit chose Ohio State and saw some action as a freshman before deciding to transfer after the coaching change. Considering we have other options, this is a great situation for Gopher fans. If Bobek lives up to the four-star status and locks down center, GREAT. If not we do with similar options to last year which should be just fine.
OG - Caleb Bak - another walk-on who was pressed into service and did an outstanding job. After starting the final four games in 2011 Bak started 11 games last year and participated in the other two becoming a critical part of the unit. Bak is on the edge of earning a starting role at guard but more than likely he'll be one of the first guys called upon if an injury were to occur. After starting over half of the games in his 2 years of competition Bak has reportedly earned himself a scholarship.
OT - Marek Lenkiewicz - 19 games and six starts are under his belt and Lenkiewicz is likely the primary back up at LT, possibly starting over Olson but I would be surprised. He is a bit slimmer than our other tackles, listed at just 289 lbs (Olson is 309 and Campion is 326).
This group is headlined by Josh Campion who started all 13 games as a freshman and did a very nice job. Bush and Bjorklund are nice pieces and should add good depth.
RT - Josh Campion - As a redshirt freshman, Campion was the only Gopher lineman to start all 13 games at the same position. Campion is tough and physical and large. Given another offseason to add strength and improve technique, I fully expect Campion to be one of the better right tackles in the conference. Offensive linemen are rarely noticed unless they manage to blow an assignment or miss a key block. Campion was conspicuously inconspicuous last year. I'm sure he wasn't perfect but the unit as a whole was much better in 2012 and Campion was a mainstay. Hoping for continued good health and a great 3 more years.
OC/OG - Jon Christenson - As a redshirt freshman Christenson participated in 10 games, starting 6. Like Epping he bring brings a level of versatility to him. Of his 6 starts three were at LG and 3 were at center when injuries kept piling up at that position. I originally whiffed and missed JC, but he is a key reason why we have such depth. Out of Minnetonka he was a walk-on for the Gophers who is now a key member of the unit, and is reportedly on a scholarship. If Christenson isn't starting he'll be playing plenty of snaps. After spring ball he is the likely starter at center unless Bobek has a very strong fall camp. Even if that is the case, Christenson may still earn a starting job at guard opposite Epping.
OT - Foster Bush - this was one of the very first Jerry Kill recruits upon accepting the Gopher job. Bush was able to participate in 7 games last year before succumbing to the injury bug. After getting decent experience as a redshirt freshman, Bush should be a part of the offensive line rotation and possibly backing up Campion at RT.
OG - Joe Bjorklund - Participated in 5 games as a redshirt freshman. Bjorklund was a nice recruit out of Rosemount. Could end up in the tackle or guard rotation.
This group is the mystery group. There are three kids who redshirted in 2012 who were all intensely sought after and the hope is that their commitment to the Gophers will result in a nice trio who help lock down the Gopher offensive line for years.
OT - Jonah Pirsig - this was the big get of the group. Pirsig was sought by Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Wisconsin (just to name a few). The big tackle from Blue Earth is potentially the next starting left tackle fixture for the Gopher OL. Standing at 6-9 and weighting 309, Pirsig has the body of an NFL tackle. A year of redshirting in 2012 and a year to get seasoned in 2013, then hopefully a three-year starter.
OG - Isaac Hayes - Was also a very nice get for the Gophers and this St. Thomas Academy lineman is going to be a fixture along the interior Gopher line for the next few years. There are a few questions around who is starting along the interior this year and Hayes could have an opportunity to earn himself some playing this year.
OT - Ben Lauer - This was the forgotten recruit along the OL but Lauer should be a regular along the line over the next four years. The opportunities will be there, likely at tackle, for the 6-6, 302, Wayazata product.
Alex Mayes - most likely a tackle after redshirting this fall. Mayes was the only offensive line recruit in this past class. He was hand picked and I fully expect he will be a big-time contributor down the road. The bench is deep and talented.
I'm sort of talking in circle here but I really like our balance of talent, depth and experience for a group that has just 1 scholarship senior. My guess at the 2-deep would look something like this...
|Starting OL||2nd Line|
|OT||Ed Olson||SR||OT||Marek Lenkiewicz||JR|
|OG||Tommy Olson||JR||OG||Caleb Bak||JR|
|OC||Jon Christenson||SO||OC||Brian Bobek||JR|
|OG||Zac Epping||JR||OG||Joe Bjorklund||SO|
|OT||Josh Campion||SO||OT||Foster Bush||SO|
I wouldn't be surprised to see Hayes and/or Pirsig in the mix here as well. It is hard to judge the really young guys based on anything other than potential and size. But I really like this group and there is reason for optimism for this year and beyond.