Gophers junior Tommy 'the Tank' Olson is making the most of his chance to start again.
Mahtomedi threw a total of five passes that gained 11 yards when it eliminated Mankato West 23-14 in the 2010 state Class 4A quarterfinals. A crunching ground game allowed the Zephyrs to keep the ball away from West’s explosive junior quarterback, Philip Nelson, in the second half.
“Smash-mouth football; I love it,’’ said Tommy Olson, Mahtomedi’s powerful lineman, on that cool, clear night in Chanhassen.
Olson already carried the moniker “Tommy the Tank’’ and remained a top recruit for the Gophers’ Class of 2011. Nelson was a junior and the target of heavy recruitment for 2012.
This week, Olson recalled his quick conversation with Nelson after Mahtomedi’s steamroller of a victory three years earlier.
“I said to him, ‘You’re going to play for the Gophers, right?’ ” Olson said. “He said, ‘No, the Badgers. That’s where you should go … Wisconsin.’ ”
It wasn’t happening. Tommy’s father, Ed Sr., was a starting center for the Gophers in the early ’80s. Tommy’s brother, Ed Jr., was a redshirt freshman and a starter at left tackle for the Gophers.
The Olsons remained loyal to Tim Brewster, even as his over-the-top rhetoric turned hollow for the masses, but more so they were loyal to the Gophers. Brewster’s firing at midseason and Jerry Kill’s hiring in December didn’t change a thing with Tommy.
The change turned out to be with Nelson, who will be making his 13th start at quarterback for the Gophers on Saturday vs. Penn State.
“It’s kind of funny, that now I’m snapping the football to him with the Gophers,’’ Olson said.
It’s a twist that has tested the Olson loyalty to the Gophers, as the younger son and kid brother went from prized recruit to crashing around on special teams for the first eight games of his junior season.
“In high school, I thought I was ‘the guy,’ ” Tommy said. “It has been humbling. I’ve tried to stay patient.’’
He paused and added: “I’ve done that. I always have been happy to be here. I’m playing Division I football. Isn’t that the dream for all of us?’’
Kill took away Olson’s redshirt immediately in 2011. Tommy made three starts at right guard and played substantially.
Last season, Olson started six games at left guard, before and after a Lisfranc foot injury. During his absence, the Gophers moved Zac Epping there for four games and discovered his size and ill temper fit perfectly at the position.
After spring practice, Epping was set at left guard, Caleb Bak at right guard. Center was not as clear cut, with Zach Mottla’s career-ending broken leg.
Early in the summer, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover came to Olson with a candid message.
“He didn’t tell me that I had to make the switch from guard to center,’’ Olson said. “He said, ‘If you want to play, center is going to be your best chance.’ ”
Olson got busy in informal summer workouts with quarterbacks Nelson, Mitch Leidner and Chris Steveler, snapping the football to the pistol (4 yards deep) and shotgun (7 yards) formations.
“The only time I’d really snapped the ball much was working with the ‘burger’ team in two-a-days my first year here,’’ Olson said. “I was so bad at it that we really couldn’t run the plays.’’
“Burger,’’ as in hamburger, as in scout team.
There was open competition between Jon Christenson, a more experienced center, and Olson in preseason camp. The coaches settled on Christenson. Olson mostly watched the offense for eight games. His moment of notoriety was snaring three squib kicks against Michigan and rumbling forward for a total of 30 yards.
And then came the first half vs. Indiana, and a gruesome moment in which Christenson broke his leg, and the Gophers’ center suddenly was Tommy Olson. Christenson underwent surgery and is done for the season.
His brother Ed, now a fifth-year senior, is the starter and alternating with Ben Lauer at left tackle.
“It didn’t look like there would be a chance to start another game with my brother,’’ Tommy said. “Not the way you want it to happen — Jon’s such a great guy, such a dedicated player — but the team needs me now, and I’m going to do this job.’’
And as he works at doing so, it will be humbly and happily, and as a Gopher through and through.
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.
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