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NCF Nation: Zac Epping

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.

[+] EnlargeZac Epping
Matthew Holst/Getty ImagesZac Epping brings a physical presence to Minnesota's offensive line.
"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.

From the (St. Paul) Pioneer Press:
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."

The Big Ten's All-Bowl team

January, 10, 2013
1/10/13
11:00
AM ET
The Big Ten won only two bowl games this season, but several players stood out around the league.

Let's take a look at ESPN.com's Big Ten All-Bowl squad ...

OFFENSE

QB: Devin Gardner, Michigan -- There weren't many good choices around the league, but Gardner fired three touchdown passes and racked up 214 pass yards. He has accounted for at least two touchdowns in all five of his starts at quarterback for the Wolverines.

RB: Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State -- The nation's ultimate workhorse running back did his thing in his final game as a Spartan. Bell had 32 carries for 145 yards and a touchdown, recording his eighth 100-yard rushing performance of the season. He also threw a 29-yard pass on a pivotal third-down play.

RB: Rex Burkhead, Nebraska -- Another back who stood out in his final collegiate game, Burkhead racked up 140 rush yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, and added four receptions for 39 yards. It's really too bad we didn't get to see what Burkhead could have done all season when healthy.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Gallon
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Gallon celebrates one of his two touchdown catches against South Carolina.
WR: Jeremy Gallon, Michigan -- Gallon recorded career highs in receptions (9) and receiving yards (145), and scored two touchdowns against a strong South Carolina defense in the Outback Bowl. It was his third 100-yard receiving performance of the season.

WR: Derrick Engel, Minnesota -- Along with quarterback Philip Nelson, Engel provided some hope for Minnesota's future on offense with 108 receiving yards on four receptions in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. His 42-yard reception marked the third longest of Minnesota's season.

TE: Dan Vitale, Northwestern -- The freshman provided offensive balance Northwestern needed against a Mississippi State team that focused on taking away Venric Mark and the run game. Vitale recorded team highs in both receptions (7) and receiving yards (82) as Northwestern ended the nation's longest bowl losing streak in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

OL: Taylor Lewan, Michigan -- Everyone remembers Jadeveon Clowney's near decapitation of Michigan's Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl -- which resulted from a miscommunication between Lewan and tight end Mike Kwiatkowski -- but the Wolverines' left tackle did a good job overall against college football's most dominant defensive lineman. Lewan anchored a line that helped Michigan put up decent numbers against an elite defense.

OL: Zac Epping, Minnesota -- Minnesota's offensive line showed flashes of the dominance it displayed for much of the Glen Mason era against Texas Tech. The Gophers racked up 222 rush yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries, as Epping and his linemates opened up holes for Donnell Kirkwood, Rodrick Williams and MarQueis Gray.

OL: Brian Mulroe, Northwestern -- Mulroe made his 40th career start and helped Northwestern finally get over the hump in a bowl game. The Wildcats had a balanced offensive attack, avoided the penalty flag and didn't allow a sack against Mississippi State.

OL: Cole Pensick, Nebraska -- Stepping in for the injured Justin Jackson at center, Pensick helped the Huskers find success running the ball against Georgia, especially up the middle. Nebraska had 239 rushing yards in the Capital One Bowl.

OL: Travis Frederick, Wisconsin: The Badgers rushed for 218 yards against Stanford, which came into the Rose Bowl with the nation's No. 3 rush defense. They also gave up only one sack to a defense which led the FBS in that category. Frederick played very well at center and announced he would skip his junior year to enter the NFL draft a few days later.

DEFENSE

DL: Quentin Williams, Northwestern -- Williams set the tone for Northwestern's win with an interception returned for a touchdown on the third play from scrimmage. He also recorded two tackles for loss, including a sack, in the victory.

DL: William Gholston, Michigan State -- Another player who stood out in his final collegiate game, Gholston tied for the team lead with nine tackles, including a sack, and had a pass breakup in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl win against TCU. The freakishly athletic defensive end stepped up in a bowl game for the second straight season.

DL: Tyler Scott, Northwestern -- Scott and his fellow linemates made life tough for turnover-prone Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell in the Gator Bowl. The Wildcats junior defensive end recorded three tackles for loss, including two sacks, and added a quarterback hurry in the win.

DL: Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota -- The big man in the center of Minnesota's defensive line stood out against Texas Tech, recording six tackles, including a sack, and a pass breakup. Gophers fans should be fired up to have Hageman back in the fold for the 2013 season.

LB: Max Bullough, Michigan State -- Bullough once again triggered a strong defensive performance by Michigan State, which held TCU to just three points in the final two and a half quarters of the Wings bowl. The junior middle linebacker tied with Gholston for the team tackles lead (9) and assisted on a tackle for loss.

LB: Chris Borland, Wisconsin -- The Badgers' defense clamped down against Stanford after a slow start, and Borland once again stood out with his play at middle linebacker. The standout junior led Wisconsin with nine tackles as the defense kept the Badgers within striking distance in Pasadena.

LB: Jake Ryan, Michigan -- Ryan capped a breakout season with another strong performance in the bowl game, recording 1.5 tackles for loss, a fumble recovery and half a sack. He'll enter 2013 as a top candidate for Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors.

CB: Michael Carter, Minnesota -- Carter finished off a strong senior year with two interceptions, a pass breakup and seven tackles in the 34-31 loss to Texas Tech.

CB: Nick VanHoose, Northwestern: The redshirt freshman picked off a Mississippi State pass and returned it 39 yard to set up the game-clinching touchdown in the fourth quarter.

S: Jared Carpenter, Northwestern: The senior was named MVP of the Gator Bowl win with a game-high 10 tackles and a near interception late in the game.

S: Ibraheim Campbell, Northwestern: The Wildcats dominate our all-bowl team secondary for good reason. Campbell had an interception and a pass breakup against the Bulldogs.

Specialists

P: Mike Sadler, Michigan State -- The punters took center stage in Tempe as both offenses struggled, and Sadler provided MSU with a huge lift in the field-position game. He set Spartans bowl records for punts (11) and punting yards (481), averaging 43.7 yards per punt with three inside the 20-yard line. His booming punt inside the TCU 5 helped lead to a game-turning fumble by the Horned Frogs' Skye Dawson.

K: Brendan Gibbons and Matt Wile, Michigan -- Both kickers share the honors after combining to go 3-for-3 on field-goal attempts in the Outback Bowl. Gibbons, the hero of last year's Sugar Bowl, connected from 39 yards and 40 yards in the first half. Wile hit a career-long 52-yard attempt in the third quarter, setting an Outback Bowl record.

Returner: Troy Stoudermire, Minnesota -- It took a bit longer than expected, but Stoudermire finally set the NCAA record for career kick return yards with a 26-yard runback on the opening kickoff against Texas Tech. The senior cornerback finished the game with 111 return yards, including a 37-yard runback, on four attempts.
Minnesota freshman quarterback Philip Nelson is one of the many young Gophers players benefiting from bowl practices this month.

But he's not the only player taking reps under center.

Senior MarQueis Gray, who started the season at quarterback before ankle and knee injuries forced a move to wide receiver, is "healthier right now than he's been since the start of the season," Gophers head coach Jerry Kill told ESPN.com on Friday. Gray is practicing at quarterback alongside Nelson and could take some snaps against Texas Tech in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

"Both those kids are working at quarterback," Kill said. "It's a great time to polish up your skills and get fresh legs underneath you. Both of those guys have done very well in practice."

Gray had 464 pass yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions, and added 331 rush yards and four touchdowns at quarterback for the Gophers this season. He ran the zone option well, and the offense moved the ball well at times with Gray in the backfield. Gray came to Minnesota as a quarterback but played mostly wide receiver in 2010 and during the second half of this season.

Nelson stepped in midway through the season after injuries to both Gray and Max Shortell, who recently opted to transfer. Nelson showed impressive poise for a true freshman and had a huge performance in a Oct. 27 win against Purdue, although he struggled down the stretch.

Injuries piled up for Minnesota's offense, especially along the line. Although Kill doesn't expect to get everyone back, the Gophers will have center Jon Christenson for the bowl game, which allows Zac Epping to move back to guard.

"Being able to get some stability in there will certainly help the continuity and will help us be able to move the ball better offensively," Kill said. "That was our struggle at the end of the year. We were just so beat up. We just didn't have very many kids left on the offensive side of the ball."

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