The key to every successful offense is the offensive line, and it's an area the Gophers have really struggled in since Glen Mason was canned in 2006. Mason had a knack for finding under recruited kids and turning them into productive linemen, learning his system his way. Tim Brewster decided the best way to build an offensive line was to do exactly the opposite-
he not only got only under-recruited linemen, he sometimes didn't recruit the line at all. recruit as few linemen as possible, and for the few kids he did bring in, he and his revolving door of coordinators and line coaches did little to get production. I'm sure when head coach Jerry Kill and his OC Matt Limegrover took over last season, they took one look at the line and said "are you f'ing kidding me?1?" Brewster had left the cupboard bare, or pretty close to it, with just three seniors and zero juniors. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to tell you you're not winning in the Big Ten with a bunch of freshman and sophomores on your line.
But that's what Kill and Limegrover had to do last season, and the results for year one were pretty impressive, especially when you factor in a rash of injuries. They were far from the best line in the conference, but by the end of the year they had turned a hodge-podge group of one senior playing a new position and a whole bunch of underclassmen into a productive group.
For 2012 the bar has, and should, be set higher, although the o-line is still a year away from being potentially really good. They lost two starters in tackle Chris Bunders and center Ryan Wynn, who happened to be the only two starters who stayed healthy for the entire season. The silver lining to all the injuries is that it brings back a wealth of now-experienced players who are still relatively young. The reason the line is still a year away is because of the number of senior offensive linemen on the 2012 roster- that would be zero. Number of juniors? Just two, although both should start. Everyone else on the line are freshmen or sophomores. There's going to be some bumps in the road with such a young group, but there's plenty of reasons to be excited for what looks to a starting line that's 4/5th Minnesotan. And that's a good thing.
A look at the tackles, guards and centers for 2012 after the jump...
Junior Ed Olson from Mahtomedi is entrenched as the starting left tackle, starting 8 times as a freshman in 2010 and 10 times last year in 2011 before missing the final two with injury. Barring another injury he'll be protecting MarQueis Gray's blindside in all 12 games this year, and the 2011 Academic All-Big Ten selection is the team's best and most experienced lineman. The starter at right tackle is a little less of a guarantee, but not for a lack of candidates. If the season started today, RS freshman Josh Campion of Fergus Falls would be your guy. The coaching staff was very excited about nabbing the 6'5, 309 pounder last year after getting him from a year at Fork Union Military Academy in Virginia, and decided to redshirt him in 2011. While it's not ideal to have a redshirt freshman starting in the Big Ten, Campion comes in ready to go now three years removed from high school. The reason to not be 100% sold Campion is an automatic starter is because of the presence of last year's game one starter, RS sophomore Jimmy Gjere. Gjere was a highly touted three or four star recruit (depending upon the scouting service) out of Irondale (Notice the Minnesota trend yet?) and grabbed the starting RT spot last year as a RS freshman. He started the first five games of 2011 before a concussion ended his season, and sat out spring ball to ensure he's as close to fully recovered as he can be.
So the questions about your 2012 starting right tackle are can Gjere return to his 2011 pre-concussion form, and if so, how long will it take? And if he can, is that enough to beat out Campion? Gjere has a lot of ground to make up in less than a month before the season opener, but you can bet he won't be with the third team very long. To start camp the #2 tackles are RS soph Marek Lenkiewicz at LT, who started the last two games of 2011 when Ed Olson was hurt, and freshman Foster Bush, who redshirted in 2011. Bush is likely to be knocked out of the two deep if and when Gjere regains his form.
As expected, looks like four star recruit Jonah Pirsig of Blue Earth will be redshirting this year, as he was running either the third or fourth linemen groups. He is mammoth though, and looks all of the 6'9 and 295 he's listed at. He should have a bright future, and he's yet another Minnesotan.
Your starting guards for 2012 are both sophomores with plenty of experience. Zac Epping is a RS soph from Wisconsin who appeared in all 12 games from a season ago, starting the final eight. At 6'2 and 306 he has the size, agility, and smarts the staff loves, and should be a fixture at right guard. At left guard is Ed Olson's younger brother Tommy, who appeared in 11 games and made three starts last season as a true freshman. Named a second team All-American by Rivals as a high school senior at Mahtomedi in 2010 (not second team all-state, second team all-AMERICAN. Yup) he's the most talented lineman the Gophers have had in years, and he should be Minnesota's starting left guard the next three seasons with definite all-conference potential.
RS Sophomore Caleb Bak is the backup RG, and like the two starters he's brings experience despite his youth. Bak didn't see his first game action until the Iowa game in week 8 (that was when Minnesota beat Iowa for the second straight season. Just in case you forgot), then started the last four at guard. He is also yet another Minnesotan, hailing from Columbia Heights and Concordia Academy. And if you thought the backup at left guard wasn't also a native Minnesotan, I mean, come on, you should know better. RS freshman Joe Bjorklund is a Rosemount graduate, and they grow 'em big down there, as Bjorklund is 6'5 and almost 300 pounds.
Olson and Epping are locked in as starters, and Bak is secure as a capable replacement if either goes down, but I'm not sure how solid Bjorklund's spot is on the depth chart right now. To start camp he's listed ahead of fellow RS frosh's Luke and Kyle McAvoy (no relation. Just kidding, they're twins so they're totally related) from Bloomington, Illinois. I don't know enough to know (to which you as the reader are saying "yeah we know") what's separating Bjorklund from the McAvoy's right now, but we'll see if Bjorklund can hold them off.
With Wynn graduating, center is the one spot on the line where the Gophers are really thin on experience. At least the only other upper classmen on the line is here in Zach Mottla (Surprise! Yet another Minnesotan. Mottla's one of "those" Minnesotans he's not just from Edina, but he's also a Cretin-Derham Hall grad. I know, right?), who because of Wynn's good health will start the first game of his career in the opener in Vegas August 30. He did see action as a reserve in six games last season so he does bring some experience, but it'll be interesting to see how Mottla gels with the rest of the line.
Behind Mottla, well, here's where things get interesting; to start camp your backup center is RS freshman Jon Christenson. I have nothing against Christenson (after all he's- you guessed it- yet another Minnesotan), but the former Minnetonka Clipper was a walk-on and sat all of last season. If something happens to Mottla or he doesn't perform well...this is your starting center. Per FBT, the coaching staff loves him and the work he put in last season, and this IS a coaching staff that has proven over the years they know how to coach offensive line. If they think he's ready, then who are we to doubt?
There is a third piece to this puzzle, and he has more talent and ability than either Mottla or Christenson, but has far less experience than either. Isaac Hayes (SHAFT!) was one of the top rated recruits in Minnesota in 2012, and the recruiting service at E!SPN LOVED him, calling him a four star prospect and the 112th best player in the entire nation! Yeah, that's a lot of love. Both Scout and Rivals tabbed him a 3 star recruit but heaped plenty of praise on his college potential. He begins camp as the #3 center, and you have to imagine the coaching staff wants to shirt him and let him compete with Mottla and Christenson in 2013 after a year of lifting and eating the Eric Klein Way. But is it out of the question he blows everyone away over the next month and earns a starting job? Ok yeah that probably is crazy, but considering the lack of experience ahead of him I'm not completely ruling it out. I'm probably the only one, though.
So that, Gopher fans, is your offensive line for 2012, and there are very few scenarios I can imagine where the 2012 line isn't better than the 2011 group. One is another rash of injuries that decimates their depth, and while possible, it'd be hard to imagine it happening two years in a row. The only other plausible scenario is that they're just not able to replace Bunders' or Wynn's production at RT and C. Maybe Gjere never regains his 2011 form and Campion struggles while neither Mottla or Christenson is really the answer at center. I suppose that's possible, but neither seems especially likely. Everybody in your two deep's been in the system a full year now, and they're bigger, stronger and a year wiser than last year's group. For me, if there's one position group that's a lock to be a definite upgrade over 2011, it's this one.