The O-Line, Limegrover’s second family

Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover invokes Five Guys and tough love to bring together an oft-maligned offensive line.

Josh Katzenstein

Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover knows how to coach offensive linemen because itâÄôs all heâÄôs ever done.

Since playing on the line at the University of Chicago in the late 1980s, Limegrover has done nothing but coach linemen, and although heâÄôs now coaching a 3-9 team that had the Big TenâÄôs second-to-last offense a season ago, Jerry KillâÄôs assistant is one of the happiest men on the field at spring practice.

âÄúI love it. ItâÄôs like recess, man,âÄù Limegrover said. âÄúPlaying O-line is not fun. Nothing associated with it is fun, so the process has got to be fun.âÄù

And since the first week of practice, when Limegrover told the offensive linemen to hold their hands as if they were eating a Five Guys burger, the group has listened intently.

âÄúHeâÄôs definitely a lineman at heart. He knows how to put things in our terms,âÄù senior Ryan Orton said. âÄúThose Five Guys [burgers], youâÄôve got to get them up. He definitely knows how to throw down.âÄù

Burger jokes aside, Limegrover is focused on turning around a line that is without three seniors from 2010. This seasonâÄôs Gophers again boast three seniors âÄî Orton, Chris Bunders and Ryan Wynn, but everyone else is an underclassman.

âÄúIâÄôd love to have five fifth-year seniors whoâÄôve all been three-year starters, but that isnâÄôt the hand I was dealt,âÄù Limegrover said.

To improve the line, Limegrover puts his men to work. Kill said nobody would be standing around during his fast-paced spring practices, but itâÄôs certainly more noticeable when 16 300-pounders are running all over the field.

The adjustment took a toll on the big guys at first.

âÄúThe first couple days were a little rough, but weâÄôve got the speed down now,âÄù sophomore Ed Olson said before noting how tight-knit the group has become. âÄúWe go in and watch film together when coaches arenâÄôt even there. We just are good friends, so we donâÄôt want to let each other down. ItâÄôs a good unit.âÄù

The rest of the team has taken notice of the upbeat linemen, too.

âÄúWhen theyâÄôre meeting we can hear them laughing,âÄù junior quarterback MarQueis Gray said. âÄúWhen itâÄôs time to be serious theyâÄôre serious, but they also have a fun side to them, and itâÄôs great that their coach allows them to be themselves on and off the field.âÄù

LimegroverâÄôs coaching style wasnâÄôt wholly born from success âÄî though heâÄôs shared in KillâÄôs triumphs since joining his staff at Emporia State (Kansas) in 1999. The offensive coordinator instead treats the field like home and his players like theyâÄôre his children.

âÄúCoach Kill tells us all the time, âÄòCoach these kids the way youâÄôd want someone to coach your son,âÄôâÄù Limegrover said. âÄúSix, seven years ago that didnâÄôt really strike with me. Then I had a son, and now my sonâÄôs 6 years old, and I think about how I would want someone to treat him.âÄù

The treatment is a combination of pats on the back and tough love. When linebacker Keanon Cooper put 391-pound lineman Johnathan Ragoo on his back a couple weeks ago, Limegrover was the first person screaming at Ragoo. Last week, Wynn lined up across from a defensive player in a one-on-one blocking drill until Limegrover told freshman Zac Epping to run the drill, saying, âÄúI know Ryan Wynn can do this.âÄù

âÄúHeâÄôs not a guy thatâÄôs going to yell at you just to yell at you,âÄù Orton said. âÄúHeâÄôs going to really try and tell you what to do to get better.âÄù

And although the GophersâÄô linemen are enjoying their coach, they still need to improve. Subtract a 281-yard, three-touchdown rushing performance in the 2010 season opener against Middle Tennessee, and Minnesota averaged just 122 rushing yards per game with 11 touchdowns.

Northern Illinois averaged 260.4 yards rushing yards per game last season âÄî seventh in the nation âÄî and scored 42 touchdowns on the ground.

The GophersâÄô rushing numbers will surely rise with the new staffâÄôs run-heavy offense, but the team is still adjusting to the system. The defense has had a noticeable upper hand in the most recent practices.

But Limegrover, like Kill, isnâÄôt spending all of his time worrying about 2011. He wants to build a strong program at Minnesota. People across the nation recognize Nebraska and Iowa for producing big, corn-fed linemen who give their in-state teams a chance to win year in and year out.

Guess what? Minnesota has them too, and Limegrover wants to keep that local talent in-state.

During last yearâÄôs recruiting period, former coach Tim Brewster couldnâÄôt bring in Cretin-Derham Hall standout Seantrel Henderson, who eventually chose Miami. Still, eight of the 16 offensive linemen on the spring practice roster are born-and-bred Minnesotans, including all three seniors.

âÄúThey just bleed maroon and gold,âÄù Limegrover said, noting that OlsonâÄôs dad, Ed Senior, captained the 1982 Gophers team. Ed Olson Jr.âÄôs younger brother Tommy will be a freshman offensive lineman next season. âÄúThatâÄôs what weâÄôre trying to do in recruiting. WeâÄôre telling them they donâÄôt need to go anywhere. Stay home. LetâÄôs build this great thing from the ground up with homegrown offensive lineman.

âÄúI think if you can get good players who completely buy into the idea that theyâÄôre not just playing for a Big Ten school, theyâÄôre playing for their Big Ten school âÄî Minnesota âÄî I think thatâÄôs a great added advantage.âÄù