Gophers ripe with depth, experience on offensive line

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 linemen
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 7
Projected starters: Ed Olson (redshirt senior), Zac Epping (redshirt junior), Jon Christenson (redshirt sophomore), Caleb Bak (redshirt junior), Josh Campion (redshirt sophomore)
Key backups: Caleb Bak (redshirt junior), Brian Bobek (junior), Jonah Pirsig (redshirt freshman), Marek Lenkiewicz (redshirt junior), Tommy Olson (junior)
The breakdown: Minnesota’s offensive line was plagued by injuries for nearly the entire 2012 season, and that string of injuries continued into spring camp. Pirsig hurt his knee during spring practices, and Bobek has been dealing with a severe viral infection.
Because of the myriad of injuries a year ago, the Gophers were forced to juggle a number of players along the line. While that led to inconsistency within the unit, it also gave plenty of linemen the chance to get playing time they otherwise might not have received. That means Minnesota returns plenty of linemen with playing experience heading into the 2013 season. In fact, the Gophers bring back every lineman from a year ago, as they had no senior lineman on the roster last season. The one exception is Zach Mottla, who retired due to injuries.
Anchoring the line is senior Ed Olson, who was one of the many injured linemen last year. He missed four games due to a sprained ankle but started nine games at left tackle. The 6-foot-7, 309-pound Olson is one of the more physically imposing linemen on the Gophers and has been solid at left tackle since his freshman year.
Epping was one of the few constants on the line last year, starting in all 13 games. He moved between right guard (two games), center (seven games) and left guard (four games), so his versatility is a big asset for the Gophers. He’ll likely begin the year at left guard, with Christenson likely to start at center. Christenson made six starts last year as a redshirt freshman, including three at center.
Campion redshirted in 2011 but started every game as a redshirt freshman in 2012, the only lineman to start every game. He’ll likely begin the year at right tackle, where he played all of last season. Bak was another player who avoided injury, as he played in all 13 games and made 11 starts at right guard as a redshirt sophomore.

Junior Tommy Olson is another lineman who returns with starting experience. He made six starts at left guard last year as a sophomore and had three starts during his freshman season. While his older brother, Ed, will be a starter, Tommy may begin the year as a backup but could easily be mixed into the rotation. While Olson has more experience at guard, he’s another option at center.

Best position battle: Given how much depth and experience the Gophers have on the offensive line, they have to feel good about being able to plug a number of guys in at any given time. Should Minnesota’s line be plagued by injuries again, the backups are ready.
The best position battle may be at center, where any number of players could be plugged in. Christenson is the best bet there, but Bobek could challenge at center as well. While he missed most of spring with a viral infection, he was a big addition to the Gophers after he transferred from Ohio State. 
Epping also has experience at center, starting seven games there last year. Still, he’s probably better suited to play guard but could fill in at center if need be. Redshirt freshman Ernie Heifort also saw some time at center this spring and is yet another option at the position.
The Gophers certainly aren’t lacking for depth on the offensive line. This is a unit that is still relatively young but has experience. It should continue to get better in 2013.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Ohio State 2. Michigan 3. Wisconsin
The Buckeyes had the second-best rushing attack in the Big Ten a year ago, thanks in part to its offensive line that returns several starters in 2013. Junior Andrew Norwell may be OSU’s best lineman, but the Buckeyes have plenty of depth and experience up front.
The Wolverines very well might have the top lineman in the Big Ten in left tackle Taylor Lewan, who would have been a first-round pick in the NFL Draft if he left Michigan early. Senior right tackle Michael Schofield helps bookend what will be one of the top lines in the conference.
Wisconsin has been known for reloading at offensive line, and 2013 is no exception. The Badgers saw two starters from last year’s team make the jump to the NFL, but have plenty of depth. Senior Ryan Groy is able to play any position on the line and will lead this unit.
Head coach Jerry Kill says: “I think playing physical in the bowl game, even though we didn’t win, excited them a little bit; and competition is good. You can’t sit up there and be an offensive lineman and say, ‘I can get comfortable today. There’s nobody behind me.’ When there’s somebody pushing you, when people get comfortable, that’s when you get in trouble. And so I think we’ve got some areas that we’ve got a little bit of depth.”

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