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Minnesota Football’s struggles with offensive line development

A closer look at how recruiting lapses and roster attrition have wreaked havoc along the Gophers’ offensive line.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Remember Greg Eslinger and Mark Setterstrom? Eslinger was a three-time first-team All-American and first-team All-Big Ten selection and the recipient of both the Outland Trophy, which is given to college football's best interior lineman, and the Rimington Trophy, awarded to college football's top center, as a senior. Setterstrom was a two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection and a second-team All-American. Both were drafted to the NFL.

That was 2006. Flash forward to 2017.

In the decade since Eslinger and Setterstrom graduated, the Minnesota Golden Gophers haven’t had a single offensive lineman selected in the NFL Draft. Just seven months ago, new head coach P.J. Fleck took the helm and went through spring practice with only six healthy offensive linemen available due to injuries and transfers.

How did it come this?

Earlier this week, I evaluated the Gophers’ defensive backs and how recruiting, injuries, and attrition contributed to a disturbing lack of depth. Today, the offensive line is under the microscope. Why haven’t the Gophers been sending offensive linemen to the NFL? General consensus seems to be that Matt Limegrover, the offensive coordinator and offensive line coach under former head coach Jerry Kill, was in over his head and struggled to balance his dual roles. He has confirmed as much since being hired at Penn State, where he seems much more comfortable serving solely as offensive line coach.

But I also think that the previous coaching staff dug themselves a hole in terms of recruiting and that stymied their ability to properly develop a Big Ten offensive line.

Minnesota Offensive Line Recruiting 2013-18

Minnesota Offensive Line Recruiting

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2013: Minnesota landed just one offensive lineman following Kill’s second season and he retired from football as a redshirt sophomore after suffering injuries as a true freshman and redshirt freshman. Members of this class would have been redshirt seniors on the current roster.

2014: Connor Mayes played in eight games as a freshman and started 15 over the next two seasons before transferring to TCU back in March. He has since retired from football. Jared Weyler did not see action in his first two seasons with the program but played in 10 games and started eight of them last season as a redshirt sophomore. He is currently the Gophers’ starting center, but has missed two games due to a leg injury. Luke Rasmussen did not see action in three years with the program and hung up his cleats last fall.

So the 2013 and 2014 classes combined to contribute one offensive lineman to the current roster: Weyler, the lone upperclassman offensive lineman not recruited out of a junior college.

2015: Things begin to improve here. Tyler Moore started 20 games as a freshman and sophomore before transferring to Oklahoma State back in January. He has since retired from football. Nick Connelly was a special teams contributor as a redshirt freshman but has earned two starts at right tackle thus far this season. Bronson Dovich and Quinn Oseland are both redshirt sophomores who have been reserves up to this point in their careers, although Oseland started at left guard against Middle Tennessee State. Ted Stieber left the team in the spring.

2016: Vincent Calhoun and Garrison Wright were both recruited out of junior college with two years of eligibility remaining. Donnell Greene was recruited with three years of eligibility. In the last two seasons, Wright has started 17 games for the Gophers, Greene has started 12 games, and Calhoun has started eight games. You think the Gophers have depth problems right now? Without the addition of these three linemen, the Gophers would have one upperclassman on the current roster. The situation could be much worse.

This class also included Conner Olson and Sam Schlueter. Olson has started all four games this season as a redshirt freshman. Schlueter has seen action in two of them as a reserve.

2017: Everyone knows about Marshall product Blaise Andries. Barring any injuries along the offensive line, he and the rest of the class will redshirt this season. Even though he is typically averse to bringing in junior college recruits, P.J. Fleck signed JUCO lineman Ben Davis, who will have three years of eligibility remaining. The fact that Fleck felt he had to go the JUCO route is a good indicator of how he feels about their offensive line depth.

2018: Fleck’s first full class has a somewhat underwhelming group of verbal commits thus far, thanks in part to decommitments from high-caliber recruits Jalen Mayfield and Oyenmwen Uzebu. Look for Fleck to add at least one more offensive lineman to this group, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if we see more shake-ups before Signing Day.

As you can see, the failures of the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes — similar to what we saw with the Gophers’ defensive back recruiting — led the staff to bring in three JUCO offensive linemen in 2016. While the additions of Wright, Greene, and Calhoun have averted potential disaster, there is a Catch-22 to patching holes with junior college recruits. In my opinion this sacrifices long-term development and stability for instant gratification.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, let’s look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, a comparable program in terms of location and recruiting that has had 11 offensive linemen drafted in the last decade.

Iowa’s Scholarship Offensive Linemen

Iowa’s Scholarship Offensive Linemen

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Iowa is split down the middle with seven upperclassmen and eight underclassmen. All five starters from the season opener — they’ve since lost senior right tackle (and three-year starter) Ike Boettger to a season-ending Achilles injury — were upperclassmen, with three seniors. All five were also recruited out of high school, meaning they’ve been in the program since they were freshmen. The Hawkeyes have also managed to retain 15 of the 18 scholarship offensive linemen they’ve recruited over the last five years.

Minnesota’s Scholarship Offensive Linemen

Minnesota’s Scholarship Offensive Linemen

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Meanwhile, three of Minnesota’s four upperclassmen have been in the program less than two years. The Gophers have had similar retention over that same five-year period, retaining 14 of the 19 scholarship offensive linemen they recruited. But six of the scholarship linemen on the current roster are true or redshirt freshmen and four have been JUCO additions.

There isn’t a dramatic difference between the two rosters, other than how the Hawkeyes’ is more balanced from top to bottom. Iowa has been outstanding at producing NFL offensive linemen in large part because of excellent coaching. The head coach himself, Kirk Ferentz, has been an offensive line coach at the both the college and professional levels. But I also think that their approach to recruiting is the other key to their success. When you’re able to bring in high school prospects and develop them within your system for four or five years, you’re going to reap the rewards of that long-term development on the field. You’re essentially building your offensive line from the ground up. The Gophers haven’t been able to do that.

The coaching staff bungled the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes in terms of the offensive line, and roster attrition exacerbated the situation. Had the staff not brought in the three JUCOs, there would be no upperclassman scholarship offensive lineman on the roster. So when you bring in a 2016 recruiting class that is 3/5 junior college lineman, you’re able to patch that hole, but you’re also losing potential sophomores and redshirt freshmen from that class. You’re plugging leaks, but you’re also creating more down the road.

For the sake of comparison, here is a look at Iowa’s offensive line recruiting.

Iowa’s Offensive Line Recruiting 2013-18

Iowa’s Offensive Line Recruiting

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The moral of the story? Recruit offensive linemen year in and year out. If you dig yourself a hole in recruiting, it’s never easy digging yourself out. The only sustainable model for building an offensive line, in my opinion, is to recruit high school prospects and develop them within your system. When you get away from that and start looking for quick fixes, there will be consequences further down the road, like we’re seeing now.