Time for my favorite annual look at each position group heading into the football season and sparking the debate if this group is an upgrade or downgrade over last season. The task is simple, look at each group, what was lost, who returns and who was added. Then we make as assessment as to whether or not this position group should be an upgrade or a downgrade from the 2017 unit.
It can be difficult to suppress the usual preseason optimism that often lends to thinking everything is going to be an upgrade, save the obvious. Not every group is going to be an upgrade...or is it?
Lets kick off the series with a look the sexiest position unit on the field, the offensive line. OK, maybe not the sexiest, but critically important. The 2017 line ended up being much improved from 2016 with a mix of youth and experience though it was lacking in depth. Will the 2018 version be better yet?
WHO IS GONE
Gone are a couple of JUCO offensive linemen who typically manned the interior guard spots. These two young men turned out to be much needed last year as fielding experienced linemen was a very real challenge for the new staff.
Garrison Wright was a fixture along the offensive line in his two years as a Gopher starting every game at guard in 2017 and 2016. Vincent Calhoun started 13 while participating in 21 over his career. As injuries mounted last year while the staff was desperately holding on to a few redshirts, these two guys were much needed.
These are the only two names departing.
A lot returns, both in terms of games played and younger talent that has yet had a chance to prove anything on the field. I’ll begin with three starters from a year ago who project to be starting this year again.
Left tackle is going to be anchored by Donnell Greene in his senior year. Greene was a JUCO transfer to came here with three years of eligibility. He started 19 games over the last two seasons and is very likely the starting left tackle on Aug 30th.
Left guard is where you can expect to see Conner Olson start. As a freshman last year, Olson was thrust into the job and he did a very nice job starting 6 games at center when Jared Weyler went down and he started 6 games at guard. Expect Olson to anchor the left guard spot and be a 4-year starting fixture there.
At center you should see Jared Weyler returning to his starting role. The senior from Dayton, OH is healthier and stronger and should be one of the better centers in the Big Ten. He has started 14 games over the last 2 seasons.
Right guard is probably going to be manned by redshirt freshman, Blaise Andries. The highly recruited Marshall native was protected last year to allow that redshirt season. This spot may be up for competition, but Andries will be your starter. Even though just a redshirt freshman, he’s one of the largest linemen on the roster at 6’5”, 315 lbs.
Finally, you’ll find Sam Schlueter at right tackle. The redshirt sophomore started the final 6 games of last season, mostly at right tackle and will begin the season as the likely starter here again. There will be some competition here, but I’ll get to that in a moment.
Upperclassmen who are also back include Quinn Oseland and Bronson Dovich. Oslend had 2 starts while playing in 8 games in 2017. I would fully expect to see his name on the initial 2-deep. Bronson Dovich, a junior from Chaska, also saw game action last season.
Lastly we have a bevy redshirt freshmen. John Michael Schmitz was a highly ranked center in the 2017 class. And Kyle Sassack is a tackle. Both were Western Michigan commits who Fleck brought with him to Minnesota. I expect Schmitz will be on the 2-deep as your primary backup center, though if there is an injury to Weyler it may very well be Olson who moves back over to center. Ben Davis rounds out your returning scholarship players. He is technically a redshirt sophomore after spending one year at American River College and then redshirting at Minnesota in 2017.
WHO IS ADDED
The 2018 additions are huge, both literally and figuratively.
First and foremost is Jason Dickson, a JUCO transfer who will come in and immediately be pushing Schlueter for playing time at RT. Dickson comes to the program at 6’6”, 315 lbs and he chose Minnesota over offers from TCU, UCLA and several other solid P5 programs. Dickosn will be in the playing time mix this season.
The remaining newcomers were part of a very exciting offensive line recruiting class. Curtis Dunlap Jr. was a 4-star recruit who had originally been committed to Florida. With the Gator coaching change, he reopened his recruitment. He was then influenced by his high school teammate, Zach Annexstad and decided to Row the Boat. Dunlap was on campus this past spring and could certainly be in the mix for playing time as a true freshman, though I think ideally the staff would love for him to redshirt. He was a huge, late addition to the 2018 recruiting class…figuratively.
Another huge and late addition to the 2018 class, literally, was Daniel Faalele. This incoming freshman comes to the program at 6’9”, 400 lbs. That was not a typo. Faalele is relatively new to football, is very raw and extremely athletic. He certainly has the size and athleticism to play immediately, he’ll likely need more time to refine his skills. Faalele is incredibly exciting, but we’ll likely need to be patient.
And there are more! Tackles Jack York out of Texas and Grant Norton of Missouri were July commitments. On the interior are Nathan Boe of Lakeville and Austin Beier from Ohio.
Those six incoming freshmen are going to be very exciting to watch over the next few years. Most will redshirt, the more who can, the better.
PHEW...that was a lot of names to go through. Expect the initial 2-deep to look something like this...
RT - Schlueter / Dickson
RG - Andries / Oseland
C - Weyler / Schmitz (or Olson)
LG - Olson / Dovich or maybe Dunlap
LT - Greene / Dickson
Is that an upgrade over last year? I think so, but not by a lot. Getting Weyler back healthy is important. Schleuter’s experience last year and another year to add strength is nice. And really adding Dickson to give more depth & competition at tackle is the biggest addition to make this group better overall. Andries is a question mark but there’s been plenty of chatter about how well he has performed in practice.
Overall, expect this group to be excellent at opening up the run game again this year. Pass protection is going to need to be better, especially with a new quarterback. But I have faith that this unit is an improvement. The real excitement is for this unit over the next few years. But that’s for another day.