Up front about future

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 20, 2011 - 10:07 PM

A promising group of young offensive linemen gives coach Jerry Kill hope for reaching his goal of building a strong running game.

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Gophers running back Duane Bennett, shown during the upset victory over Iowa, has surpassed 100 yards rushing in two of the past four games thanks in large part to the work of young offensive linemen such as right guard Zac Epping (52).

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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The most experienced player on the Gophers had a big day Saturday, due in part, he said, to his least-experienced teammates.

"I'd say the new guys have come together as a unit, and that's important for us as an offense," said tailback Duane Bennett, who in his 48th career game enjoyed the second-highest rushing total of his career. "They're young, but you can see them improving."

Nothing could be more important for a program trying to resurrect itself under a new coach, and nothing could be more heartening than seeing concrete evidence of that progress. When Jerry Kill accepted this reclamation project, he declared his intention to build a team that can run the ball first and foremost, but it hasn't happened quickly. Entering Saturday's game at Northwestern, the Gophers ranked 11th in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging only 140 yards per game and a subpar 3.8 yards per carry.

But the Gophers stuck to a ground game against the Wildcats, and made it work. Bennett picked up 127 yards, eclipsing the 2,000-yard career mark in the process, while MarQueis Gray mixed planned rushes with impromptu ones, gaining 147 yards along the way.

As a team, the Gophers picked up 269 yards with their running game, the highest total since they gained 281 yards against Middle Tennessee State in the 2010 season opener. Not so coincidentally, Bennett set his career high in that game with 187 yards.

Here's the difference, though: That Gophers team started an offensive line of four upperclassmen and freshman Ed Olson. On Saturday, the Gophers started three freshmen against a Northwestern defensive front of two seniors, a junior and a sophomore.

"They're doing a great job," Gray said of his young line. "They gave me time" to throw.

And room to run, too.

"You rush for over 200 yards in the football game, the offensive line's doing something," Kill said. "They're doing a good job of holding their blocks."

Mark Lenkiewicz, a 19-year-old freshman from Chicago's southern suburbs, was the latest addition to the lineup, moving into Olson's spot a left tackle because the sophomore has been slowed by a season's worth of injuries. Lenkiewicz lined up next to Caleb Bak, another 19-year-old pressed into duty at left guard by Tommy Olson's injuries. And two spots down, a third teenager, Zac Epping, mans the right guard position.

The season started with Jimmy Gjere, yet another freshman, at the right tackle spot, but a concussion has ended his season early. Still, that's a lot of youth to throw into battle against veteran Big Ten lines.

"It's not ideal, maybe, but it's our reality," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, who coaches the line, said earlier this month. "You can't worry about what you don't have. You turn it into a positive -- and our guys have done that. The experience they're getting now will absolutely help them. ... You can see a light going on in their heads every week. 'Oh, if I do this, it'll work better. Oh, that's how you handle that.'

"All of that gives them something to build on next week, and next year."

The Gophers will return six linemen next season with significant playing experience -- and all of them with two or three seasons of eligibility left. In addition, there are five offensive linemen who have practiced all season while redshirting, including the McAvoy twins from Illinois and the freshman whom Kill believes will grow to be his best lineman: Foster Bush, a 270-pounder from Menasha, Wis. Then there are the incoming recruits, headed by Jonah Pirsig, a 300-pound all-state tackle from Blue Earth, Minn.

But for now, the Gophers are content to watch the kids grow. "You try to teach technique, but the game experience is more about getting comfortable, gaining confidence that you can do this," Limegrover said. "Our guys have really worked hard."

As those who gain the yards can attest.

"They're doing a great job," Gray said. "It's a good way to get them ready for next year."

Phil Miller • phil.miller@startribune.com

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