It's a time-honored axiom in football. Games are won and lost in the trenches. We've covered the defensive line here in the camp blog, so today, we're going to take a look at the other side of the ball and focus on the big nasties on the offensive line.
The Golden Gophers ranked 86th in the nation in rushing offense last year, averaging just 135.3 yards per game. You can bet head coach Jerry Kill and offensive coordinator/offensive line coach Matt Limegrover aren't going to be happy with a number like that in 2011. After all, the Northern Illinois offense they led in 2010 racked up more than 260 yards per game and ranked No. 7 in the nation in that category. The Huskies were in the top 20 in rushing each of the past two seasons and were No. 37 the previous season. By comparison, Minnesota hasn't ranked better than No. 48 in the same span.
Team rushing offense and protecting the quarterback are two of the more simple ways to judge an offensive line. While the Gophers haven't had a wildly successful offensive line for a few years, they do have two things going for them coming into 2011, according to Limegrover - experience and depth.
The Gophers have two full complements of offensive linemen who Limegrover says he's comfortable with and three of those guys are five-year veterans of college football.
"The thing I'm most happy about is we're nine, 10, 11 strong with guys who could go out there and play for us against USC," Limegrover said. "Now, my job is to figure out which five and how those pieces fit. They've been great to work with. They love learning. They're good, football-smart kids. Any time you have that, you feel like 'OK, I can put something together as a coach that's going to be what we can win games with.'"
That depth has been important early in camp. A handful of offensive linemen have been in and out of the rotation with injuries. Coach Kill said he's been impressed with how the group has handled that adversity.
"We've got a lot of guys out," Kill said. "We've thrown whoever's in there and they just keep playing."
"Our three fifth-year seniors have all done a great job, not only on the field but leading the younger guys," Limegrover continued. "Ryan Wynn, Ryan Orton and Chris Bunders ... those guys have been great in the meeting room, great out here on the field. They have a good idea of what we're trying to accomplish overall, as far as effort and getting better every day."
It's a bit of a mutual admiration society from the offensive linemen as well, according to the aforementioned Bunders.
"He's definitely an offensive lineman's dream," Bunders said. "He knows how to coach it. He's the offensive coordinator. He knows how everything is going. He tries to keep it simple for us. All he expects is for us to work our [butts] off every time."
Limegrover is also very pleased with the play of sophomore Ed Olson. Olson's father - also named Ed - played for the Gophers and his younger brother Tommy is a freshman offensive lineman on the team this season, as well.
"Eddie Olson ... he loves the U, he loves being a football player here," Limegrover said. "He takes it very seriously. He's a guy I gotta kick off the practice field, get out of the meeting room when he's watching film. If I don't, he'll never go home. He's a very lead-by-example guy."
Bunders said when Limegrover puts the puzzle pieces together and determines which offensive linemen are going to be on the field in certain situations, the group will really come together.
"We want to be able to play as hard as we can, be really good at what we do," he said. "Five guys playing as one and we'll be good from there."
>Tuesday was another two-a-day for the Gophers. Coach Kill worked the team hard in the morning in full pads and then backed off just a bit in the afternoon session. "This morning was a very, very difficult, physical practice," Kill said. "We went full pads this morning and got after it in the kicking game full-tilt, kickoffs the whole ball of wax. Then, I thought we were sharp here this afternoon and got some things ironed out. I feel good and now we've got to progress to tomorrow."
>Coach Kill rewarded the players for their hard work in Tuesday's scrimmage and Wednesday's two practices with most of the evening off.
>With a handful of injuries in camp, Coach Kill has continued to stress to the team to take advantage of opportunities to get on the field when they come. "If somebody goes down, the next guy gets an opportunity," Kill said. "If you get to playing better than the first one did, then you get to play. Life's about opportunities. That's how I got to play. I wasn't very good, but all of them got hurt in front of me and I got the job. Then I didn't let anyone take it from me."