Between now and the Gophers' spring game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 9, we'll be breaking down each position group on both offense and defense. We'll take a look at who is leaving, who is coming back, and what to watch for before Minnesota takes the field for fall training camp.
Next up? The offensive line.
Key Departure(s): Josh Campion, Jon Christenson, Joe Bjorklund, Ben Lauer, Brian Bobek, Foster Bush, and Isaac Hayes
Key Returner(s): Jonah Pirsig, Tyler Moore, and Connor Mayes
New Arrival(s): Vincent Calhoun, Garrison Wright, Conner Olson, and Sam Schlueter
The offensive line was a mess last season, and there were a number of factors involved. First and foremost? Injuries. It was a game of musical chairs all game long in the trenches. Starting right tackle Josh Campion missed eight games, starting center Brian Bobek and starting left tackle Ben Lauer both missed seven, and starting left guard Jon Christenson missed four. And that is not counting the linemen who played through injuries or had to be pulled from the middle of games due to injury. What had been considered the Gophers' strength on offense prior to the start of the season quickly became its most glaring liability. But injuries were not the sole reason for that. The coaching and development of the Gophers' linemen was also called into question, which led to the firing of offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Limegrover.
Enter Bart Miller. You can read more about him here, but the challenge ahead of him is clear. If the Gophers intend to take the next step on offense, they'll need significant improvement up front. Both he and Tracy Claeys have been clear on their new offensive line philosophy, as well. They want "road graders" who can open up holes for the running game. Pass protection will come later. Both have emphasized the need for an offensive line that is tougher, stronger, and more explosive. From the sound of it, Miller is going to push them hard this spring, and I would expect nothing less considering his reputation.
So who does Miller have left to work with after the departure of seven seniors? Redshirt senior Jonah Pirsig is the veteran of the group, having started nine games at right tackle and four at left tackle last season. Tyler Moore, now a sophomore, was thrown into the fire at center as a true freshman. He started the last seven games in place of the injured Bobek, and showed flashes of having the kind of attitude Claeys and Miller want to see from their line. Junior Connor Mayes started the first 10 games of the season at right guard before benched for the final three in favor of Joe Bjorklund.
Junior college recruits Vincent Calhoun and Garrison Wright are the ones to watch. There is a severe shortage of upperclassmen on the offensive line, and Calhoun and Wright are being counted on to fill that gap. Calhoun is a 6'4'', 335-lb. guard out of Southwest Mississippi Community College. Wright is a 6'5'', 325-lb. guard out of Butler Community College, who also received an offer from TCU. Both have been pegged as the early favorites to take over at the guard positions.
Claeys singled out redshirt freshman Nick Connelly as a candidate to start at left tackle. Fellow redshirt freshmen Bronson Dovich and Quinn Oseland are also expected to compete with Connelly for that spot, but I'd consider Connelly the frontrunner.
Both Calhoun and Wright have played some tackle this spring, so it is clear Miller is going to mix and match to get the best five offensive linemen on the field. We can make an educated guess as to what the offensive line will look in the opener against Oregon State, but it will all come down to who Miller identifies as the best of the bunch.
One noticeable offseason development has been the shift of Mose Hall from defensive tackle to offensive line. It is clear that depth will be a concern. With a lack of upperclassmen and a group of inexperienced and unproven group of underclassmen, this is the biggest question mark on offense. There is so much uncertainty that it is almost impossible to predict what we'll see on the two-deep. Miller has his work cut out for him.