Offensive linemen usually go unnoticed until they do something bad.
Anyone who watched the 2012 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas noticed Minnesota offensive lineman Zac Epping midway through the second quarter. Epping drew personal-foul penalties on back-to-back plays, which, combined with a sack and an illegal block foul, resulted in a third-and-49 situation for the Gophers. Although Epping might not have been a fan favorite at that very moment, he displayed an attitude and an edge that Minnesota's offensive line has, quite frankly, lacked for years.
Epping's penalties generated attention, but his overall performance in the game flew under the radar. When I reached out to Minnesota for Big Ten all-bowl team offensive line candidates, the coaches nominated Epping, who had graded out best among the Gophers linemen in a game where Minnesota piled up 222 rush yards. The Gophers had generated a meager 4 net rush yards in their final regular-season game against Michigan State and just 87 the previous week against Nebraska.
"It was high tempo," Epping said of the bowl game. "Coach [Jerry] Kill challenged us as an offensive line, tight ends and all that, to push ourselves to the limit and give it all we can. We felt like we needed to do that."
Playing with an edge comes naturally for Epping, a 6-foot-2, 321-pound junior from Kenosha, Wis. He played defensive tackle as well as offensive line in high school and recorded 128 tackles as a senior.
RecruitingNation described him as "more of a mauler then finesse type guy" during the recruiting process, a description Epping won't dispute.
"I feel like I'm more of a physical guy on the O-line," he said. "I can push everybody else and make sure they can be as physical as I am."
Epping finally has a good group of teammates to push after injuries ravaged the offensive line throughout the 2012 season. Only two linemen -- Epping and Josh Campion -- started all 13 games. Epping started at three different positions: center (seven games, including the bowl), right guard (four games) and left guard (two games), earning the team's offensive lineman of the year honor.
He worked mostly at left guard this spring but still took some snaps at center, a spot where Minnesota is looking for solutions.
The offseason has been "crucial" for the line, in Epping's view, as players made significant gains in the weight room and showed greater maturity in practice. After making progress between the end of the regular season and the bowl, the line took another step this spring in its quest to return to the dominant rushing attack Minnesota had for years under former coach Glen Mason.
In 13 games last season, the Gophers had only five runs 25 yards or longer. The Gophers had five of those in their spring scrimmage alone Saturday, April 20.
Epping admits the line lacked energy at times last season. It's up to him to make sure the level remains high in every practice and in every game.
"We want to be a downhill running team, power football, run it up between the tackles and get after the defense," he said. "I love it.
"I've been playing that my whole life. I'm ready to bring that back to Minnesota."