Leading up to the Gophers’ spring game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 15, we’re breaking down each position group. Today, we’re taking a hard look at a position with question marks that likely won’t be answered until fall: Offensive line.
Key Departure(s): Jonah Pirsig, Tyler Moore, and Connor Mayes
Key Returner(s): Garrison Wright, Vincent Calhoun, Jared Weyler, Donnell Greene, Quinn Oseland, Bronson Dovich, Nick Connelly, Conner Olson, and Sam Schlueter
Spring Enrollee(s): None
Fall Enrollee(s): Blaise Andries, Kyle Sassack, and John Schmitz
Offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig graduates with 30 career starts as a Gopher. But Minnesota also loses Tyler Moore and Connor Mayes. Moore started 20 games at center over the last two seasons for the Gophers, before deciding to transfer to Oklahoma State in January. Earlier this month, Mayes announced his plans to transfer from the program after starting 15 games over the last two seasons. Losing a combined 65 career starts between three players is a tough blow for a team with serious depth issues on the offensive line.
Ed Warinner was a home run hire for P.J. Fleck
Ed Warinner, who will serve as offensive line coach and run game coordinator for the Gophers, is the real deal. Prior to Minnesota, Warinner spent the previous five seasons at Ohio State, where he was offensive coordinator (co-offensive coordinator for three seasons) and coached offensive line (with the exception of last season, when he shifted to coaching tight ends). In four season as offensive line coach for the Buckeyes, Warinner produced six NFL offensive lineman, including three rookie starters in 2014. The Buckeyes also ranked in the Top 15 in the country in rushing offense in each season under Warinner. In 2013, Warinner’s Buckeyes even set the single season Big Ten record for rushing yards in a single season with 4,321.
With a college coaching career spanning more than 30 years, including stops at nine different programs, Warinner is widely regarded as one of the best offensive line coaches in college football. In 2012 and 2014, he was named FootballScoop’s Offensive Line Coach of the Year. Last season’s winner, Brian Callahan, is now coaching tight ends at Minnesota. So there is reason to be excited about the future of the offensive line. Unfortunately, Warinner has a challenge ahead of him in the immediate future, which we’ll get to in a minute.
As far as schemes are concerned, Warinner has not coached under Fleck before, so I’m not sure how much change we’ll see from Callahan’s offensive lines at Western Michigan, where the offense was predicated on power and zone schemes. Offensive line was considered a strength for the Broncos last season — hence why Callahan was retained and shifted to tight ends — but I’m sure Warinner will add his own personal touch at the position for the Gophers.
Shield your eyes before looking at the roster
Here is the situation with the offensive line: The Gophers have 10 offensive linemen on the roster this spring. Four of them — Garrison Wright, Vincent Calhoun, Jared Weyler, and Ryan Just — are out recovering from surgery. That leaves six offensive lineman available for spring practice and sidelines three potential starters. Couple that with the transfers of Moore and Mayes, and things could look pretty ugly along the offensive line. I’m not even sure how Fleck plans to manage the spring game. Seven-on-seven, maybe?
But the return of Wright, Calhoun, and Weyler is important for the Gophers, barring any potential setbacks in their recoveries. Wright started 13 last games last season and played every position except center. Calhoun, who battled turf toe for much of the season, started seven games, with all but one start coming at right guard. Weyler started eight games last season, with two at right guard and six at left guard, but missed the final three games with a torn tricep. Greene will also be a key cog after starting the final eight games of last season at left tackle.
If I had to venture an educated guess at the starting five:
Left Tackle: Donnell Greene
Left Guard: Conner Olson
Center: Jared Weyler
Right Guard: Vincent Calhoun
Right Tackle: Garrison Wright
Backing them up, I’d slot Nick Connelly and Sam Schlueter at second-string left and right tackle, respectively, with Quinn Oseland at left guard and Bronson Dovich at right guard. From what I’ve heard, Mayes had been working out at center before he decided to transfer, so I’m not sure who will slide in behind Weyler on the depth chart. It’s safe to say we won’t get a lot of answers at this position until fall camp, once everyone is healthy.
Freshman offensive linemen Blaise Andries, Kyle Sassack, and John Schmitz will be on campus for fall camp. Ideally, you’d like to see all of them redshirt, but that may not be an option with the lack of depth at the position. Andries, obviously, is the marquee name in the group. The Marshall native was the top recruit in the state of Minnesota last season, with offers from Florida, Miami, Michigan State, Oklahoma, and Oregon, among other Power 5 programs. Projected as an offensive tackle, Andries is the total package, complete with size and athleticism. Schmitz is another one to watch. Though not as highly touted as Andries, Schmitz has similiar physical tools that will serve him well, especially early on in his career. He can play anywhere on the interior line, but the coaching staff has him pegged at center, I believe.
Next: Defensive Line.