Gophers’ line hopes to go from young to good

This is the fifth in a series of 11 previews leading up to the University of Minnesota football team’s start of practice.

July 22: Quarterbacks
July 23: Running backs
July 24: Wide receivers
July 25: Tight ends
July 26: Offensive linemen
July 27: Defensive linemen
July 28: Linebackers
July 29: Cornerbacks
July 30: Safeties
July 31: Specialists
Aug. 1: Coaches

TODAY’S POSITION: TIGHT ENDS

Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6.5

Projected starters: Ed Olson (redshirt junior), Tommy Olson (sophomore), Zach Mottla (redshirt junior), Zac Epping (redshirt sophomore), Jimmy Gjere (redshirt sophomore)

Key backups: Caleb Bak (redshirt sophomore), Josh Campion (redshirt freshman), Marek Lenkiewicz (redshirt sophomore),

The breakdown: Minnesota used several young lineman in 2011, but the Gophers must make up for the losses of center Ryan Wynn, tackle Chris Bunders, and guard Ryan Orton, three seniors on last year’s line. The good thing is that many of Minnesota’s returning linemen gained experience a year ago.

Redshirt junior Ed Olson played in all 12 games last season and made 10 starts at tackle. He also made eight appearances during his freshman year in 2010. His younger brother, Tommy, too, gained experience last year as a true freshman. Tommy Olson played in 11 of 12 games, including three starts at right guard.

Epping also got plenty of playing time last season as a redshirt freshman, playing in all 12 games, including eight starts. His first career start came in Minnesota’s game at Michigan on Oct. 1, and he was a starter for the rest of the season.

Gjere made five starts at right tackle last year as a true freshman but missed the remainder of the season with a concussion. He’s not the only lineman looking to bounce back from a concussion, as Campion was forced to redshirt in 2011 due to a concussion. Campion was able to participate in spring practices without any limitations after he cleared the team’s concussion tests. But getting to that point was not easy.

“It was probably one of the toughest things I’ve ever gone through,” Campion said this spring of his recovery. “There’s days where you have headaches so bad, they’re migraines, you can’t do anything. And there are some days when you’re like, ‘Wow, I can play.’ But you’ve just finally got to get those days to overweigh the bad ones. And that’s where I’m at now. I don’t have any problems anymore.”

Campion is one of the backups who could give Minnesota’s offensive line some depth in 2012. So is Lenkiewicz, who appeared in six games and started at left tackle in the Gophers’ final two games of last season.

Coach Jerry Kill recruited two of the top linemen in the state in Jonah Pirsig of Blue Earth, Minn., and Isaac Hayes of St. Thomas Academy. It remains to be seen whether either will play in 2012 or take a redshirt year.
 
Best position battle: Though Wynn, Bunders and Orton, leave big shoes to fill, the Gophers may have the toughest time replacing Wynn, simply because he started all 12 games at center as a senior. It appears as if the battle for the center job could come down to Mottla and Epping. The 6-foot-2, 290-pound Mottla did not start as a sophomore last year but did play in six games as a reserve. Epping, meanwhile, made eight starts as a redshirt freshman in 2011. The 6-foot-2, 310-pound lineman from Kenosha, Wis., lined up at guard last season.

Best of the Big Ten: 1. Wisconsin. 2. Michigan State. 3. Michigan. The Badgers will reload on the offensive line after losing Peter Konz and Kevin Zeitler, both of whom were selected in this year’s NFL draft. Left tackle Ricky Wagner and center Travis Frederick should anchor Wisconsin’s beefy line. Michigan State, meanwhile, returns four starters from last year’s line. In all, six players who started a game on the offensive line are back for coach Mark Dantonio, including third-year starter Chris McDonald. The Wolverines lost center David Molk to the NFL but bring back plenty of experience. Michigan’s top lineman is left tackle Taylor Lewan, perhaps one of the best tackles in college football.

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