The Gophers' first spring practice is one week away, giving coach Jerry Kill and his staff a chance to get their first look at a half-dozen new players who are already enrolled at Minnesota. But just as exciting for offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover is the opportunity to begin sorting through all the returning offensive linemen who will be competing for starting jobs.
The first of 15 practices is at 3:30 p.m. next Thursday at the Gibson-Nagurski football complex. Like last year, all spring practices are open to the public, culminating in the April 21 spring game in TCF Bank Stadium.
Mostly due to injuries, Minnesota used 12 different players for significant stretches along the line last season, "probably twice as many as I've ever played before," Limegrover said. "We've always been pretty constant with our lineup, so that was new even for me. All that shuffling -- it was tough last year, but now we reap the benefits of all that experience."
Of those dozen linemen, 10 return this year. Yet even with all the playing time the Gophers' various linemen received last year, they remain perhaps the most inexperienced line in the Big Ten. There are no seniors in the group of 18 linemen (counting those who will join the team in the fall), and Ed Olson and Zach Mottla are the lone juniors. While Limegrover expects certain players to step forward, he said every position is open, to a greater extent than he's ever seen.
"I don't mean this in a bad way, but there's no one who's indispensable in this group," Limegrover said. "It wouldn't be like, 'Oh my God, this guy got hurt.' We've got a lot of guys coming along really well."
He expects Jimmy Gjere, who started five games last year, to return from a concussion that cost him most of last season.
In addition to sorting out who will play, Limegrover intends to figure out where they'll play. Expect plenty of shuffling of positions this spring, he said, citing now-graduated Chris Bunders' ability to play three positions last season.
One of those changes is Zac Epping's tryout at center, after finishing the season as the Gophers' starting right guard. And redshirt freshman Foster Bush will start out at right tackle, "but I'm not going to waste his time if we're [deep] there. We'll get him down at guard and let him go."
Along those same lines, Josh Campion, who practiced at guard last year while redshirting, "looks a little bit better out in space," Limegrover said, and will will get practice time at tackle. Meanwhile, former defensive lineman Sean Ferguson "seems better when he can get on somebody quick inside. So we're going to flip those two and see how things go," Limegrover said. "Fergie's big (6-foot-6 and 300 pouns), but he can move really well. Sometimes you pigeonhole guys, you look at them and go, 'Oh, he's a tackle.' But that may not be where his talents lie. He may be a better guard, and that's what we're going to find out. That's why I love the spring."