A tight end, or something like that

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2011 - 11:36 PM

The Gophers new coaching staff knows it has a gem in the versatile Eric Lair, who can give defenses fits in many ways.

Gophers tight end Eric Lair caught 39 passes in 2010 and expects more. “This offense is good for me,” he said.

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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Eric Lair is one of the best pass-catchers on the Gophers' offense, but that's not all he can do. When fullback Jon Hoese was felled by a hamstring injury midway through the 2010 season, Lair spent a few practices lining up behind the quarterback.

"I was supposed to get the ball on a dive play" if the Gophers needed a goal-line score, the senior tight end said. "We practiced it, but we never got to use it."

Hey, maybe this year. Lair, who caught a pass in every game last season and three or more eight different times, has discovered that while he has a position in the Gophers' new offense, he doesn't have anything close to a reliable place to line up. The Houston native hugs the line on one play, then drifts wide the next. He takes a step back in one setup, then moves into the slot in another. And seemingly more often than not, no matter where he lines up, he goes in motion.

"They don't want to keep me in the same spot," Lair said after practice Thursday. "I like it. It doesn't give the defense a chance to key on me."

That began happening last season, after Lair went through a four-game stretch with 19 catches and a pair of touchdowns. Linebackers began keying on him, even when he was blocking, making it harder for him to fake a block and get open for a pass.

Not a bad strategy, considering how effective Lair -- who finished the season with 39 catches, third on the team -- had become. His new coaches noticed that a year ago, when they were game-planning against him for Northern Illinois.

"He's an athletic kid. He's a mismatch," said Gophers coach (and former NIU boss) Jerry Kill.

Lair finished that game, a 34-23 Gophers loss, with a career-high seven receptions, and the Huskies staff left believing they were lucky it wasn't worse. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys told his offensive counterpart, Matt Limegrover, that "If I had known how well Eric Lair could run, I'd have done things differently, coverage-wise," Limegrover said. "We didn't really account much for the tight end, and it could have been bad for us."

Lair hopes it is this year, especially since he's up to 240 pounds and feeling much stronger.

"This offense is good for me," he said. "I think they're trying to make me a bigger part of the receiving corps. Coach [Kill] said [to] keep learning, keep progressing and he'll try to get me the ball as much as he can."

No matter where he lines up.

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