Interior line shuffle key to spring session

The Gophers have to replace Greg Eslinger and Mark Setterstrom.

Chris Lempesis

Most of the talk surrounding Minnesota’s football team’s spring practices has been about who is going to replace star running back Laurence Maroney, who decided in late December to forgo his senior season to enter the NFL draft.

Maroney is not the only player who needs to be replaced to ensure the Gophers’ running game stays top-notch.

Minnesota has vacancies for all three spots on the interior of its offensive line, including center and left guard, positions previously held by Outland and Rimington trophies winner Greg Eslinger and two-time All-Big Ten first-teamer Mark Setterstrom.

“It’s coming along,” said guards and centers coach Gordon Shaw. “It’s an interesting spring. Never really been in this position in the spring practice. We’ve had to deal with it in the fall before, but spring Ö it’s getting interesting.”

While Shaw might make it sound as though the Gophers are struggling to find replacements for Eslinger and Setterstrom, there are a couple of names that have risen to the forefront in the search.

Right tackle Tony Brinkhaus, who will be a junior in the fall, and center Tyson Swaggert, who will be a senior in the fall, appear to be the front-runners for the spots, although it is undecided who will play which position. Shaw and offensive coordinator Mitch Browning said they hope to have a good feeling about who will play which position by the end of spring practices later this month.

Brinkhaus is not inexperienced by any stretch when it comes to being in the lineup. He was the starting right tackle in all 12 games last season, earning All-Big Ten honorable mention status. As talented as he is, Brinkhaus – listed at 6 feet, 4 inches, 300 pounds – admitted that moving inside has been a sizeable adjustment.

“It’s one thing to just switch a position,” Brinkhaus said. “But right now I’m trying to learn how to play center and guard. They’re two new positions for me.

“As far as now, in our offense, the center makes all the calls at the line for all the other offensive linemen. So that’s probably my biggest adjustment so far. In terms of the guard position, the biggest change is just the different steps and things like that.”

Swaggert’s story is a little different. The 6 foot, 4 inch, 285-pounder has seen limited action in his time at Minnesota.

But Browning credited Swaggert’s knowledge of the center position and while Swaggert called Eslinger a “special player,” he said he thinks they have a lot of the same qualities, such as the fact that they both work hard.

“It’ll be hard to copy (what he did),” Swaggert said. “But I’ll do the best I can.”

As Brinkhaus said, the coaches aren’t necessarily looking for the pair to be Eslinger and Setterstrom right away.

That might be true, but the players know they have to be in place and solid so that the new starting running back, whomever it might be, will have plenty of holes in front of him.

“We just gotta carry on the tradition of running the ball well and protecting well and just having a good offense,” Swaggert said. “The main thing is, you need a solid line for everything else to work. So there is some pressure, but I think we got the guys to do it.”