Thursday, April 22, 2010
Gophers' O-line restoring pride this spring
By ESPN.com staff ESPN.com
D.J. Burris doesn't need to be reminded of the way it used to be at Minnesota.
The Golden Gophers weren't just a good rushing offense, but a record-setting one. Minnesota didn't just produce good offensive linemen, but great ones like All-Americans Greg Eslinger and Ben Hamilton.
D.J. Burris & Co. are looking forward to running an offense that emphasizes the power run.
The team's history isn't lost on Burris and his linemates this spring.
"We're definitely aware of the tradition here about running the football," said Burris, Minnesota's starting center. "That's why we're taking it upon ourselves to get it back."
Pride is the word Burris and even non-linemen like quarterback Adam Weber use to describe what's happening up front this spring in Minneapolis. The team's running game hasn't merely slipped off its perch, but plummeted to the bottom of the Big Ten.
The last two seasons have seemed extremely un-Gopher-like:
2008: Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten and 104th nationally in rushing offense (103.8 ypg)
2009: Minnesota finished last in the Big Ten and 111th nationally in rushing offense (99.5 ypg)
Part of the problem has been a lack of continuity. Minnesota ran the spread offense under Mike Dunbar in 2007-08, and then switched to a pro-style system, designed to emphasize the power run, under Jedd Fisch last season.
The Gophers are adjusting to another new coordinator this spring, as Jeff Horton takes over the offense. But Horton's top goal, one the players clearly appreciate, is simplifying a convoluted system and identifying the hallmarks for the unit to succeed.
"We know where we're going as an offense," said Burris, who started at guard as a freshman before moving to center the last two seasons. "Our playbook's a lot thinner, and we know exactly what we're doing on every play now, so it's nice. Every season, it's been something new, something new, and then this year we simplified it with what we've already been doing.
"That makes us a lot more comfortable."
Head coach Tim Brewster didn't hide the fact he wanted more toughness from the line this spring, and he has seen the group respond. All five starters are back and continuing to work in the top spots, but they're being pushed by players like Ed Olson and Brooks Michel. Returning starters like Matt Carufel and Jeff Wills are healthier, and massive tackle Jeff Wills has slimmed down a bit.
During an April 10 scrimmage, the line started slow but got stronger as things went along, creating holes for backs DeLeon Eskridge and Duane Bennett.
Weber, who has a vested interested in the line's performance, has seen a difference this spring.
"They’re playing with confidence and they’re playing with pride," he said. "You can definitely tell, when it’s third-and-1, when it’s fourth-and-1, they can sense that they need to pick up their game a little bit, and we've been winning a lot of those battles."
After being pushed around too much the last two seasons, Burris and his crew expect to turn the tables this fall.
"As an offensive line, that's where your pride comes from, when you can walk into a game and you can run the ball up and down the field," he said. "That's when you feel good about yourself."