Kenosha is the fourth-largest city in Wisconsin with just short of 100,000 people. The campus of Northern Illinois in DeKalb is within a two-hour drive, making the Kenosha area a prime locale for the Huskies to seek football players.
Matt Limegrover was the offensive coordinator and line coach for Northern Illinois in the fall of 2008. He was watching tape of Kenosha Tremper High School games and noticed a large lad starting on both defense and offense for the Trojans.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen,” Limegrover said. “I loved the way he played hard every play, on offense, or defense, or even special teams. I knew he was the type of player I wanted to coach.”
The player was Zac Epping, a junior at Tremper. Limegrover made contact and stayed after Epping in the months ahead.
“I tried everything I could do legally to get him to NIU,” Limegrover said. “Unfortunately for me at the time, Zac chose to play at Minnesota.”
Northern Illinois was a strong possibility for Epping, until he received an offer from Tim Brewster’s staff.
“I hadn’t been invited to the Gophers camp in the summer, didn’t have that much contact, and then came the offer,” Epping said. “I liked NIU and Coach Limegrover, but it was a chance to play in the Big Ten.”
Epping signed with the Gophers in February 2010. Ten months later, Brewster and his staff were gone, and the new coaches were Jerry Kill’s veteran group from Northern Illinois — including Limegrover.
“The disappointment of not getting Zac at NIU became my good fortune,” Limegrover said. “I refer to Zac as a ‘dirtbag.’ In our offensive line room, that is not derogatory … it’s a term of endearment. If you’re a dirtbag, that means you’re a guy who plays a play through the echo of the whistle.”
Nearly all offensive linemen are redshirted in big-time college football. That was the case with Epping in 2010, even as the employment situation turned desperate for Brewster and his staff.
That gave Limegrover four seasons to have Epping — 6-2 and now 320 pounds — finishing plays. As a redshirt freshman in 2011, he started the final eight games, at one guard position or the other. As a sophomore in 2012, he started the 13 games: seven at center, four at left guard and two at right guard.
This season, Limegrover stationed him at left guard, where the mobility that he brings with that huge frame allows him to pull. It’s not a pleasant sight for defenders to see a fully committed Epping — behind his full, reddish beard — charging to the point of attack.
On Friday, the Gophers play Syracuse in the Texas Bowl in Houston. For Epping, it will be a return to the scene of his most famous Gophers moment … when the “dirtbag” moniker lost its affectionate meaning, however briefly.
The Gophers were playing Texas Tech in Reliant Stadium last Dec. 28, in what was then called the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
The score was tied 17-17 in the second quarter. The Gophers had a second-and-12 at their 48-yard line. There was a 15-yard penalty for a crackback block on a receiver.
There was a brouhaha after the whistle and the Gophers were flagged 15-yards for unsportsmanlike conduct. The referee announced that the penalty was on Epping.
“The crackback was a bad call,” Epping said. “The unsportsmanlike was actually on Ed Olson. There was a Tech guy on [Drew] Goodger, giving him a cheap shot, and Ed went to protect his teammate.”
The Gophers were now second-and-42 at their 18. Donnell Kirkwood ran for 3 yards.
“I blocked through the whistle, and they threw another flag,” Epping said.
Epping was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that went for 10 yards, half the distance to the goal. The Gophers were now third-and-49 at their 11.
“The game was chippy from the start,” Epping said. "We were upset with the calls. And, you can’t really hear the whistle down there anyway.”
Epping paused, shrugged and said: “I buried the guy.”
Mike McKay was Epping’s offensive coach at Tremper. He’s now the coach at Indian Trail, a newer high school in Kenosha.
“Zac was a quiet, respectful young man off the field … a nasty kid when the ball was snapped,” McKay said. “By that, I mean that he always played to the whistle.”
Clearly, there’s no greater compliment a coach can offer an offensive lineman than “playing to the whistle.” As far as playing past the whistle, how many big march-offs this season, Zac?
“None,” he said.
Not an unsportsmanlike, or even a hold?
“No,” Epping said. “I had one penalty … a false start. It was a bad call.”