Offensive line is an open competition

Freshmen are competing with upperclassmen for spots on the Big Ten’s best pass protection unit. In 2007, the Gophers led the Big Ten by only allowing 13 sacks.

While the defensive backfield might be the most prolific question mark this year for the Minnesota football team, its offensive line is not far behind.

Of the 19 linemen on the roster, nine have no Big Ten game experience.

Granted most will redshirt this season, there are still a few openings waiting to be filled.

The pre-camp depth chart has redshirt freshmen Ryan Wynn and Chris Bunders in the No. 1 spots for right guard and right tackle respectively, however everything could change by the season opener on Aug. 30.

“We want a solid line right now,” head coach Tim Brewster said. “The most important thing is now.”

Wynn and Bunders are competing with upperclassmen for spots on what was the Big Ten’s best pass protection unit. In 2007, the Gophers led the Big Ten by only allowing 13 sacks.

Gone from last year’s line are captains Tony Brinkhaus and Steve Shidell . In are Wynn, Bunders, Ryan Orton and Trey Davis.

The player turning the most heads in practice is Orton, a 6-4, 284-pound redshirt freshman from Eden Prairie.

“Ryan Orton is really making a move right now at the guard position,” Brewster said. “I mean he’s really making a strong move right now. I like what he’s doing a lot.”

Veterans are even starting to notice the progress Orton has made.

“Ryan Orton has improved immensely since last year,” sophomore Dom Alford said.

Praise has been sent Wynn’s direction, too.

“We really like what we’re seeing out of Ryan Wynn at right tackle,” Brewster said.

Brewster said players are still being shuffled throughout the line to find the best position for each.

“We want to move them around, get them comfortable,” Brewster said.

“We think we’ve got them in the right spots in the long run but they all are a little bit interchangeable between tackle and guard,” he said.

Every position on the line appears to be an open competition for playing time.

“It’s good that we have a lot of competition for the spots because competition does nothing but make you better,” Alford said.

Alford, juniors Ned Tavale, Jeff Tow-Arnett and sophomore D.J. Burris are the only returning linemen who earned significant playing time last year.

With these four linemen and competing freshmen, the entire offensive line has questions to answer due to their age.

“I’d be more concerned if these kids weren’t talented,” Brewster said. “But these kids are really talented.”

The freshmen are fitting in well on the line through 13 days of practice.

“The freshmen are coming along really well,” Tavale said. “These guys are fighting hard and getting reps.”

The competition for starting spots has not led to hostility. Rather, veterans are helping the freshmen prepare for their first games in the Big Ten.

“D.J. and I were in the same position last year so we can help them out,” Alford said.

However, the camaraderie has not gotten the team to the level it needs to be at by the season opener against Northern Illinois.

“Everyone needs to pick up their one-on-ones,” Tavale said.

Alford suggests an attitude adjustment is needed to get the line prepared.

“The offensive line is all about attitude,” Alford said. “We’re the big uglies, the mean guys up front.

“Once we get that right attitude we’ll be dominating.”

With all the competition on the line, Brewster is not going to give spots to freshmen to build on the highly ranked recruiting class.

“It’s very exciting for the future knowing we’ve got some very good young talented offensive linemen who are going to be around,” Brewster said. “That future stuff is great, but the now is more important.”