Surrounded by reporters last month at Big Ten media days in Chicago, Gophers quarterback Mitch Leidner couldn’t wait to talk about his roommate, Jonah Pirsig.
“Wait ’til you see him,” Leidner said.
At 6-9, Pirsig is hard to miss. Always has been. But Gophers coach Tracy Claeys was determined to change the offensive line’s culture last winter, and Pirsig got the message.
The senior right tackle from Blue Earth, Minn., entered training camp at a leaner and meaner 325 pounds, ready to raise his stock for the NFL draft.
“I kind of wish I had four more years of eligibility to keep it going,” Pirsig said. “But I’m really grateful for Coach Claeys changing what we’re doing. This is the healthiest I’ve felt since I’ve been here.”
Claeys fired Matt Limegrover as offensive coordinator and offensive line coach last November, and hired Bart Miller from Florida Atlantic to focus solely on the offensive line.
Miller, 31, has made no secret that he wants the Gophers linemen to become meaner.
“We didn’t really have that last year,” Pirsig said. “[In 2014], we just had [guard Zac] Epping. It was just kind of in his nature. But there are some guys that you have to coach that and preach to, and then it comes naturally to them.”
Pirsig, 23, will be an interesting study. He’s an elementary education major who thoroughly enjoys teaching. But he’s a different person when he’s helping kindergartners with math than he is on the football field.
As Pirsig said, Miller’s philosophy is, “If we’re not trying to put our guy on his back, it’s not good enough. … If you’re not a guy who’s naturally going to go out there and be nasty and mean, you just have to think about it being your duty.”
Pirsig is one of three returning offensive line starters, along with sophomore center Tyler Moore and junior left guard Connor Mayes. The other two projected starters are junior college transfers Garrison Wright (left tackle) and Vincent Calhoun (right guard).
Injuries decimated the offensive line last season, when Pirsig was the only lineman to start all 13 games. He had to play through an elbow injury to do it, but he was healthier than he was earlier in his career when he dealt with knee and wrist injuries.
“I know he’s hungry to be an All-American and an All-Big Ten football player, because we haven’t had one here at the O-line position for a long time,” Leidner said. “And that’s not good for a big-time football team like Minnesota.”
The media actually voted Epping as a first-team All-Big Ten selection in 2014. But the Gophers haven’t had an offensive lineman get drafted since Greg Eslinger and Mark Setterstrom were late-round picks in 2006.
Pirsig brought new hope five years ago, when he signed with the Gophers after receiving offers from Auburn, Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan and Michigan State.
He has shown promise but hasn’t fully tapped his potential. CBSSports.com ranks him as the 12th-best offensive tackle prospect for next year’s NFL draft. He decided against leaving early after last season.
“It was a small thought in my mind, but I’m really looking forward to this year,” Pirsig said. “Got to have a good year here first before I can start thinking about that.”
Leidner said it was “unbelievable” how hard Pirsig and the other offensive linemen pushed themselves through their offseason workouts.
“I mean, look at the size of [Pirsig] over there,” Leidner said. “[He’s a] monster. I wish he got to play Joey Bosa one more time because I think he could put him on his back about 50 times.”
Bosa went to San Diego with the third overall pick in this year’s draft out of Ohio State.
“He’s a great player,” Pirsig said. “It would’ve been nice to get another shot at him. But maybe that’ll come sometime in the future.”