Gophers offensive linemen focus on being more versatile

The value of having a lineman with versatility is great, and more and more of Minnesota's big men are fitting that mold.

Minnesota's offensive line last year helped pave the way for running back David Cobb to become the school's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006.

Brad Rempel / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS -- Former Gophers offensive lineman Ed Olson roamed the sidelines at Minnesota's practice Sunday, barely recognizable.

Olson, who was listed at 309 pounds as a senior last year, has dropped about 90 pounds since his playing days ended. His hair is also a bit longer now than it was during his playing days, but the trimmed-down Olson was a testament to just how big and strong Minnesota's offensive linemen became over the years.

During his time with the Gophers, Olson played just one position: left tackle. Though he played it well, he never moved around on the offensive line. That type of lineman is a rare breed this season at Minnesota. The Gophers linemen have transitioned toward becoming a group who can play multiple positions, with interchangeable parts that can be swapped out at various spots on the line.

Olson's younger brother, Tommy, is a prime example. A senior on this year's team, Tommy Olson could be the Gophers' starting center when the team opens the season later this month. During his first two seasons, Olson saw time at both right and left guard. He then switched to center in 2013 and started four games after Jon Christenson went down with a leg injury.

The value of having a lineman with that type of versatility is great, and more and more of Minnesota's big men are fitting that mold.

"It's the idea you can get your best five on the field," said Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, who also coaches the offensive line. "If you're a specialist, if a guy's just a left tackle and he's your backup left tackle and he's a good football player but you can't move the pieces around to get him on the field if someone goes down, you're playing with an inferior player. You're not playing with your best five. So all those guys know that versatility's the key, especially developing as a younger guy."

A quick glance at the Gophers' projected starters on the offensive line shows that they indeed are versatile. Senior Zac Epping has been a starter for Minnesota since his freshman year, but not all of those starts have come at one position. Though all 13 starts in 2013 came at left guard, Epping has also played center and right guard for the Gophers.

Junior Josh Campion has started 26 games for Minnesota, and all 26 have come at right tackle. Though he's expected to be the Gophers' starting right tackle once again, Campion has prepared for the possibility of playing some guard, just in case.

"This summer, coach just said, 'Be ready to play some guard,'" Campion said. "Here in the summer and last spring, I trained a little bit at guard just to be ready."

The versatility of Minnesota's line is one of several reasons why this unit is poised to have an even bigger season than it did in 2013, when it helped pave the way for running back David Cobb to become the school's first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. The line didn't lose a ton from last year, with Ed Olson and Caleb Bak -- who retired for injury reasons -- as the only two lineman with starts last season not returning in 2014.

On top of that, strength and conditioning coach Eric Klein has had another summer to work with the linemen, who continue to bulk up.

"Not to say anything before our first game, but I think we're working to get to be dominant and stronger and more physical," Campion said. "I know I've put on some weight and put on some mass. I think as far as an offensive lineman goes, we've gotten bigger and we've gotten stronger. We're getting better to finish on our blocks."

Getting bigger and stronger won't be the only key for Minnesota's linemen this year. Getting more versatile may be just as important. For some, it could be the difference between stepping on the field and staying on the sideline.

"There's guys that will get on the travel squad and get on a plane to go to away games just because of their versatility. Other guys who can't do it, they fall behind," Limegrover said. "Those guys know it. We try and recruit that way. I think we're starting to cultivate that group of guys to be multidimensional and do different things for us."

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