The Minnesota Golden Gophers have developed a very good and deep offensive line group since Jerry Kill took over as head coach. Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover put an emphasis on building the strength up front. They want to run the ball and can’t do it without a good offensive line.
The depth they built will really start showing now that almost all of them are his recruits. There are only three offensive linemen on the roster that were committed and recruited to Minnesota before Kill took over in December of 2010. Starting guard Zac Epping and reserve offensive tackle Marek Lenkiewicz redshirted as freshmen the season before Kill took over and starting center Tommy Olson committed in January of 2009.
Epping and Olson should be joined in the starting lineup by returning starters Josh Campion and Ben Lauer. Lauer, a former walk-on, was named to numerous all-freshman teams. The most interesting position battle is likely to be the left guard spot vacated by Caleb Bak, who announced in May that he is retiring from football due to concussion symptoms. Redshirt juniors Foster Bush and Joe Bjorklund are likely to be the leading candidates, but don’t count out reshirt sophomore Isaac Hayes. Bjorklund worked as the backup left guard the last couple seasons and is likely to take over for Bak.
The center position could also be a good battle during practice. Olson, a member of the Rimington Award watch list, is likely to start on Day 1. The two players that will challenge him for playing time are redshirt juniors Jon Christenson and Brian Bobek. Christenson was the starter most of last season before suffering a broken leg and Bobek was expected to be in the mix to start last season, but an illness that developed during spring practice forced him to miss the entire season. Bobek was a highly-recruited U.S. Army All-American Bowl participant as a senior in high school.
In addition to Bush, Hayes and Christenson, the second unit should include Lenkiewicz and redshirt sophomore Jonah Pirsig. Pirsig was highly recruited out of high school in southern Minnesota, but injuries have limited his playing time. He should get plenty of reps at right tackle in 2014 before being Campion’s replacement in the starting lineup when he graduates.
Bobek should headline the third unit with a pair of brothers to his left and right. Redshirt freshman Alex Mayes and his younger brother Connor could man the left side and twin brother redshirt juniors Kyle and Luke McAvoy could play the right side.
The rest of the offensive linemen on the roster include walk-on redshirt freshman Chad Fahning and Matt Leidner along with true freshman Luke Rasmussen and Jared Weyler and redshirt junior Ernie Heifort. Heifort has been a jack-of-all-trades with experience on the offensive line and at tight end. He could move up the depth chart and will make an impact on special teams.
Projected Depth Chart
First Team - 73 Joe Bjorklund, RS JR, Rosemount, Minn. (Rosemount High School); 65 Josh Campion, RS JR, Fergus Falls, Minn. (Fork Union (VA) Military Academy); 52 Zac Epping, RS SR, Kenosha, Wisc. (Tremper High School); 78 Ben Lauer, RS SO, Plymouth, Minn. (Wayzata High School); 58 Tommy Olson, SR, Mahtomedi, Minn. (Mahtomedi High School)
Second Team - 77 Foster Bush, RS JR, Menasha, Wisc. (Menasha High School); 63 Jon Christenson, RS JR, Minnetonka, Minn. (Minnetonka High School); 68 Isaac Hayes, RS SO, Brooklyn Park, Minn. (St. Thomas Academy); 74 Mark Lenkiewicz, RS SR, Tinley Park, Ill. (Victor J. Andrew High School); 79 Jonah Pirsig, RS SO, Blue Earth, Minn. (Blue Earth Area High School)
Third Team - 67 Brian Bobek, RS JR, Inverness, Ill. (Ohio State University); 55 Connor Mayes, FR, Van Alstyne, Texas (Van Alstyne High School); 76 Alex Mayes, RS FR, Van Alstyne, Texas (Van Alstyne High School); 71 Kyle McAvoy, RS JR, Bloomington, Ill. (Bloomington High School); 66 Luke McAvoy, RS JR, Bloomington, Ill. (Bloomington High School)
The Rest - 70 Chad Fahning, RS FR, St. Paul, Minn. (DeLaSalle High School); 75 Ernie Heifort, RS JR, Bemidji, Minn. (Bemidji High School); 60 Matt Leidner, RS FR, Lakeville, Minn. (Lakeville South High School); 53 Luke Rasmussen, FR, Brookfield, Wisc. (Central High School); 62 Jared Weyler, FR, Dayton, Ohio (Centerville High School)
The Rest of the Division
Illinois Fighting Illini - The Illini return four of their five starting offensive linemen from last season.
Iowa Hawkeyes - The Hawkeyes return three of their five starting offensive linemen from last season, including future NFL prospect Brandon Scherff.
Nebraska Cornhuskers - The Cornhuskers return one of their five starting offensive linemen from last season. The one returner is guard Jake Cotton.
Northwestern Wildcats - The Wildcats return all five starting offensive linemen from last season.
Purdue Boilermakers - The Boilermakers return three of their five starting offensive linemen from last season. They lose both starting offensive tackles.
Wisconsin Badgers - The Badgers return four of their five starting offensive linemen from last season, including Minnesota native Tyler Marz.