This is the fifth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the Minnesota football team’s Aug. 1 start of practice.
Today’s position: Offensive line
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 8
Projected starters: left tackle Ben Lauer (redshirt sophomore), left guard Zac Epping (redshirt senior), center Tommy Olson (senior), right guard Foster Bush (redshirt junior), right tackle Josh Campion (redshirt junior)
Key backups: center Jon Christenson (redshirt junior), tackle Marek Lenkiewicz (redshirt senior), tackle Jonah Pirsig (redshirt sophomore)
The breakdown: Minnesota’s offensive line has continued to get better each year under head coach Jerry Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, and this year’s unit could be the best Kill has had in his four years as the Gophers coach. Minnesota returns two linemen who started every game last season (Epping and Campion), while Lauer, Olson and Bush all started at least three games in 2013.
The only real losses the Gophers sustained on the offensive line were tackle Ed Olson, who graduated, and guard Caleb Bak, who stopped playing due to concussions. If he were still healthy, Bak would likely have been Minnesota’s starting right guard. Instead, Bush looks to take over that role after starting in Bak’s place at the end of the season.
Tommy Olson made the switch from guard to center before the 2013 season, and made four starts there at the end of the year when Christenson went down with a leg injury. Olson has 14 career starts under his belt during his first three seasons, and should compete in fall camp for that starting center job. The 6-foot-7, 315-pound Lauer made four starts and played in 13 games as a redshirt freshman last year. His starts came in the middle of the season against San Jose State, Iowa, Michigan, and Northwestern.
As the running game remains a staple of Minnesota’s offense, the continued improvement of the Gophers’ offensive line was key. This was a unit that helped David Cobb become the school’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006, and the line was a big reason that Minnesota finished fifth in the Big Ten in rushing by averaging 195.2 yards per game. With so many starters returning, and with a number of reserves already having gained valuable playing time, there’s no reason to think this offensive line can’t be one of the best in the conference in 2014.
Best position battle: It remains to be seen when Christenson will be ready for action as he continues to recover from his season-ending leg injury. When he does return, though, the battle at center could be one to watch. Christenson started the first nine games of the season at center in 2013 before the injury, while Tommy Olson stepped in to replace him for the remainder of the year. While Olson has the edge heading into camp, that certainly could change. Olson is versatile enough to move around the line a bit, so if Christenson does resume the starting center job, it could mean Olson sees more time at guard.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Wisconsin, 2. Iowa, 3. Michigan State
If Wisconsin’s football program has become synonymous with churning out talent at any position, offensive line has been near the top of the list for years. The Badgers seemingly don’t miss a beat with their front five from year to year. The 2014 edition of Wisconsin’s offensive line — one that helped UW finish second in the Big Ten in rushing average — includes a trio of fifth-year seniors.
Iowa left tackle Brandon Scherff may be the top offensive lineman in a conference known for producing plenty of good ones. If all goes well for Scherff in 2014, he could be a high first-round draft pick in 2015. Hawkeyes center Austin Blythe was honorable mention All-Big Ten as a sophomore last year, during which he started all 13 of Iowa’s games. Just like Wisconsin, Iowa’s offensive line returns plenty of experience from a year ago.
While Michigan State loses three starters from a year ago, the two returning starters are among the best in the Big Ten. That includes center Jack Allen, a redshirt junior who started 24 games during his first two seasons. Jack Conklin settled into the starting spot at left tackle for most of his redshirt freshman season last year. The 6-foot-6, 330-pounder garnered first-team freshman All-American honors.