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Minnesota Football: Race to MAHturity - John Michael Schmitz is the offensive line’s unsung hero

The Gophers’ sixth man on the offensive line proved his worth last season

Minnesota v Rutgers Photo by Corey Perrine/Getty Images

In our “Race to MAHturity” series, we will be highlighting Gopher football players who are expected to step up and take on a bigger role for Minnesota next season (whenever that may be).

The Minnesota Movers have a secret weapon and his name is John Michael Schmitz. Though he may not be a secret for much longer if he continues to draw the attention of evaluators like Pro Football Focus, who have him ranked as the second-highest rated returning Power 5 interior offensive lineman for 2020. And he isn’t even a regular starter.

As a redshirt sophomore last season, Schmitz was the Gophers’ sixth man on the offensive line, sliding in at center whenever there was an injury among the starting five and offensive line coach Brian Callahan needed to shuffle his linemen around.

If you recall, he made his first career start against Nebraska last year. Starting right tackle Daniel Faalele was ruled out before the game, so Schmitz got the starting nod at center, starting center Conner Olson slid over to left guard, and starting left guard Blaise Andries stepped in at right tackle. The result? Schmitz and co. paved the way for 322 rushing yards and did not surrender a sack for the first time all season. Not bad, right?

More than a few people have asked how the offense changes when, for example, Faalele is out and Schmitz is in. Well, with those two linemen specifically, the difference is easy to spot: Less mass, more lateral mobility. The Nebraska game is a perfect example. That was the biggest and strongest defensive line the Gophers had faced up to that point, so the game plan to neutralize their advantage was to run outside zone and get them moving laterally.

On the Gophers’ first run play of the game, Schmitz helped spring Rodney Smith for a 35-yard run. First he engages with the nose tackle before passing him off to Olson at left guard and taking the linebacker, allowing Smith to cut back and find an open running lane.

Here is another outside zone where Schmitz helps open up a gaping hole for a Gopher running back. Right guard Curtis Dunlap allows the stunting defensive lineman to take himself out of the play, Andries at right tackle gets in front of an incoming safety, and Schmitz blocks the linebacker. The lone Husker defender left unblocked in the box over-pursues as Shannon Brooks cuts in between Schmitz and Dunlap for a gain of 28 yards.

Schmitz also had an outstanding game against Auburn in the Outback Bowl, again earning the starting nod at center with Faalele sidelined due to injury. Most impressive was his ability to work off of double teams and get to the second level. Here, for example, you have the Gophers set up at 1st and 10 at the Tigers’ 16-yard line in the first quarter. Olson and Schmitz double team the nose tackle before Schmitz moves to block the linebacker standing between Mohamed Ibrahim and the end zone. Ibrahim follows Schmitz’s lead and ends up scoring to tie the game.

There is so much I’d like to highlight from the Outback Bowl, because the Minnesota Movers were up against one of the best defensive fronts in the country and dominated them for most of the game. But I’ll settle for this 20-yard run by Ibrahim on 2nd and 16 at the Auburn 37 late in the second quarter. The play, which would help set up Tyler Johnson’s miraculous touchdown catch in the back of the end zone before halftime, was made possible by a couple of blocks courtesy of Schmitz and the left side of the Gophers’ offensive line.

Left tackle Sam Schlueter and Olson double team Auburn’s All-SEC defensive end Marlon Davidson, leaving Schmitz with the difficult task of blocking the three-technique defensive tackle from the center position. If he can’t neutralize that tackle, Ibrahim likely gets dropped at or behind the line of scrimmage. But Schmitz makes the block and off goes Ibrahim.

Clearly the present and future are both bright for John Michael Schmitz, and it is only a matter of when, not if, he becomes a regular starter for the Minnesota Movers. Until that day comes, he’ll have to settle for being the best kept secret in Minnesota.