Let's begin where any good offense does- on the offensive line. Only two senior linemen will be gone, as 14 of 15 guys from the Gophs' THREE deep roster will be back next season. Center Zach Mottla's senior year ended before it began as a slow recovery from a broken leg suffered his junior year forced him to retire a year early. The former walk-on from Cretin-Derham Hall worked his tail off to move up the depth chart, and played in 13 games between his sophomore and junior season with three starts at center in 2012 before the leg injury ended his career. Mottla's absense tested Minnesota's depth at center, as Tommy Olson was moved from guard to second string C behind Jon Christenson. In what's hopefully not a bad omen Christenson's season also ended early in 2013 because of a broken leg, as Olson started the last four games of the year in his place. Assuming a full recover It'll be a good battle between Christenson (himself also a walk-on like Mottla) and Olson for the starting center job for 2014.
Speaking of Olsons, Tommy's older brother Ed Olson was another senior battling back from injuries suffered during the 2012 season, and it looked like he too might not get back in the lineup for Minnesota before his career was over. He didn't see the field for four of the team's first five games, yet kept working himself back to full strength, finally gaining his first start of the season against Nebraska. He and the line had their best game of the year, and Olson started the last five games to finish with 35 career starts at LT for Minnesota. It's a shame he couldn't stay healthy for his entire time in Maroon and Gold but it was great to see him finish strong.
During his absenses the Gophers were able to build up the future of the position, as redshirt freshman Ben Lauer appeared in all 13 games the past season, and started four straight in the middle of the season. The FWAA voted him to their freshman All-America team and he was also named academic All-B1G, and the coaching staff is very high on Lauer's present and future. He's your very likely starter for 2014. Keep an eye on who slots in behind Lauer on the depth chart, though. RS Jr Marek Lenkiewicz started the first three games of the season before Lauer took over, but appeared in just three of the season's final 10 games after that. The staff liked Lauer's size at the position, and at "only" 289 pounds, "Lenk" should be able to get stronger with another offseason, but if he hasn't eclipsed 300 pounds by now, it's unlikely he will as a senior. There's plenty of younger options as well, so it'll be interesting to see who emerges from that group to push Lauer in the spring.
Of the whopping 11 listed tight ends on the roster, just two were seniors, and neither cracked the depth chart this season. Sahr Ngekia's appearance in the UNLV game to start the 2013 season was his only playing time in his entire Gopher career. The former Holy Angels walk-on hadn't played much organized football before enrolling at The U, and is a converted receiver. While he didn't play, he obviously loved the team as he stuck around to work on his post-graduate degree.
Moses Alipate also loved being a Gopher, as the former highly-touted quarterback recruit from Bloomington Jefferson never played a down at Minnesota but stayed with the team for five full years. One of the top players in the state as a senior in high school in 2009 and one of the top 30 QB recruits in the nation as a pocker passer, Alipate saw his chance to play QB for Minnesota vanish not long after enrolling. Tim Brewster's revolving door of coordinators changed the offense multiple times, and was passed on the depth chart by MarQueis Gray as the team emphasized a scheme that favored dual-threat QB's. Jerry Kill's hiring didn't change that, as he and OC Matt Limegrover also brought in an offense that needed a mobile quarterback. Yet Alipate never once complained, and never transferred somewhere else where he could have played quarterback. Instead, he stuck around, switched positions to tight end in the spring of 2012, and from all reports was a great and supportive teammate.
Everybody who contributed at tight end/H-back returns for 2014 with Maxx Williams and Drew Goodger as your starters, and a solid group behind them competing for playing time. Fullback is another story, as departing senior Mike Henry was one of the most unheralded yet most important players on the entire team. He didn't register one single carry in 2013 and caught just eight passes for 86 yards (as well as the two point conversion you see above), yet he was vital to Minnesota's offense as a run and pass blocker. Henry was devastating as the team's lead blocker and helped David Cobb to Minnesota's first 1000 yard season for a running back since 2006. He missed just one game all year, and it was the debacle to Iowa when Limegrover couldn't (or for some reason refused) run his power run game without Henry, and the Gophs ran for a season low 27 yards at 1.1 YPC.
There's not an obvious replacement on the roster as Maxx Williams was often listed as his backup, yet Williams mostly played near the line of scrimmage as a TE much more than an H-back in the backfield. Junior Gabe Mezzenga and freshman Tyler Hartmann are the only two other players on the roster listed as fullbacks, but I'll fully admit I have no idea what the coaches have in mind here. Mezzenga appeared in seven games this season while Hartmann redshirted, so they could give it to one of those two. Then again, other than the vaunted Golden-I formation, I don't remember too many other times when Minnesota used a formation with a true fullback with the QB lined up under center. They loved to run the inverted wishbone formation which had the two other, um, "non-tailbacks" lined up closer to the edge of the line than behind center. A number of different ways they could go here, but bottom line is Henry was a great blocker and that will be missed.
For the running backs whom Henry was plowing the way for, there was just one senior in the group, and he didn't have much of an impact in his short Gopher career. James Gillum was a good JUCO transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast CC who was expected to come in and give a jolt to a stagnant Minnesota ground game last year, but his only start came in the season opener in Vegas in 2012 where he rushed 14 times for 51 yards. His playing disappeared pretty rapidly after that as he finished the season with just 73 yards on 27 carries, and he was never able to climb his way back up the depth chart in 2013, appearing in just four games with two carries for nine yards. Everybody of consequence is back though for 2014 and Minnesota will also add speedy redshirt frosh Berkley Edwards and hopefully all-everything Washburn recruit Jeff Jones to the mix as well. The running back stable is as good and deep as it's been since the heyday of the Mason years.
If you've followed this team at all you know there were not only no senior QB's on the roster, but no juniors either. Mitch Leidner, Philip Nelson and Chris Streveler will battle for the starting job, and I pray to all that is good and holy it's not a slap fight like last season. Please, PLEASE have one of them grab the job and keep it so we don't have a gong show-esque repeat of 2013.
Finishing the trend of a very young offense are the wide receivers, who have been hit hard by losses- just not from seniors. 2012's leading receiver AJ Barker quit the team and left school (at least for awhile), junior Devin Crawford-Tufts quit to concentrate on track and field, and promising sophomore Andre McDonald had a myriad of off-field issues that kept him off the field entirely. That left senior Derek Engel to carry the load (or perhaps more accurately "catch" the load? Well you get the idea) for what is and was otherwise a very inexperienced position. Engel put up solid though pedstrian numbers while starting eight of 10 games before a torn ACL ended his career. Engel was spectacular at times, and could have had better numbers had the offense not waited to start throwing the ball until conference play. The only other senior in the group was Victor Keise, who played sparingly throughout his Gopher career. He played in two games as a senior and 16 for his career.
Engel's unfortunate knee injury at least gave an opportunity for the guys behind him to get some playing time, and true freshmen Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones emerged as the team's present and future. Both are far from finished products, but should begin spring camp as the starters. Behind them are some veterans who have had plenty of opportunities to prove themselves but haven't, and the hope is at least two more recruits will be brought in to compete as well. This was arguably the worst position on the team in 2013, and losing a reliable player in Engel won't help, but hopefully another off-season can bring this group forward. The passing game needs to be much better in 2014 and the improvement needs to come not only from the quarterbacks, but definitely from the receivers too.
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