Tuesday, July 31, 2012
Minnesota looks to rebuild O-line tradition
By Brian Bennett
Offensive linemen are usually a pretty anonymous bunch by nature, but Minnesota has taken that to another level in recent years.
You won't find any names from the Gophers' O-line on the Outland or Rimington trophy watch lists this preseason, or on any preseason All-Big Ten teams, for that matter. That's just continuing a recent trend. No Minnesota offensive lineman has been named a first-team All-Big Ten performer since Outland winner Greg Eslinger and Matt Setterstrom both did so way back in 2005.
That's an awful long time for a program that used to produce outstanding linemen on a regular basis, and the current players know all about the drought.
Minnesota linemen, such as left tackle Ed Olson, have focused on bulking up this offseason.
"All offseason, we've been saying we've got to get a name for ourselves," tackle Ed Olson said. "We haven't had the best name for Minnesota football in the past few years, not since Matt and Greg."
One could understand why the Gophers have struggled to produce, say, All-American defensive tackles or first-round quarterbacks. But their roster should seemingly be chock full of burly linemen, given their location and the demographics of their state. After all, the flagship programs in neighboring states Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska all consistently field strong lines anchored by pro prospects.
"There's no question that you've got to do a good job in your state, and with where we're at, we've got to be able to get the big, strong physical kids," second-year Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. "That's who you are. That's the state of Minnesota -- hard-working, lunch-pail type people -- and we need to recruit and develop a football team with the mentality of our state."
Kill has always had physical teams known for running the ball at his previous four head-coaching stops, and that's what he's hoping to build with the Gophers. It all starts with recruiting, and that's why Kill is excited about two in-state, incoming freshmen the Gophers signed in February: Jonah Pirsig, a 6-foot-8, 300-pounder who was offered by Wisconsin and Iowa; and Ben Lauer, a 6-6, 260-pound tackle.
"Wisconsin made a pretty good living on our side [of the border] there for a while, but we've been able to keep some of those players in-state," Kill said. "And you once get length and size, you've got to build it in the weight room."
Minnesota has been trying to do that with the current players, and Kill said last week that the offensive linemen have put on an average of 15 to 20 pounds per man this offseason. Olson is a great example; the fourth-year junior weighed 290 pounds last season but said Friday that he's up to 320 now.
The starting left tackle might be the Gophers' best chance for a breakout star on the line this season. He was recruited by Iowa and Michigan but chose to follow in the footsteps of his father, also named Ed, who played for Minnesota in the early 1980s. His younger brother, Tommy, is one of three freshmen who started games on the line a year ago.
"We were young last year, but I think all that experience is making us all push each other more in the offseason," Ed Olson said. "[Offensive coordinator] Matt Limegrover always tells us that everything starts up front, and we take pride in that."
This much is for sure: Minnesota will need to start churning out standout offensive linemen again if it wants to finish higher in the Big Ten standings.