Nimble feet help make Kuppe top tackle

by Brian Hall

His teammates call him “the phenomenon.” Minnesota football coach Glen Mason has called him the “dancing bear.” Quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq referred to him as the “gentle giant.”

All of which are nicknames for Gophers offensive tackle Jake Kuppe that few would label the 6-foot-7, 350-pound lineman at first glance.

As it turns out, the big guy likes to dance and, according to fellow lineman Jeremiah Carter, isn’t afraid to show off his moves.

“That’s why we call him the phenomenon, because no one has any idea how all of a sudden he can move the way he does,” Carter said. “I am not saying it looks good, but you know.”

Meanwhile, Kuppe is just trying to fight the stereotype of being a big, mean, uncoordinated offensive lineman.

“I am not the big, bruising offensive lineman that my size would lend people to think,” Kuppe said. “I am just a good-hearted guy. I like to dance. I like to show the guys that I can move. I kind of have some rhythm and dance moves that not a lot of people would expect me to have.”

Kuppe hopes his light feet will help Minnesota pull out a win in his final home game. The Gophers play host to No. 6 Iowa at the Metrodome on Saturday.

“It will be great coming onto the field for the last time with the crowd and all my family there,” Kuppe said. “It will be a culmination, with the big game against Iowa and so many things on the line for that game. For it to be my last home game is great.”

The fifth-year senior has helped Minnesota post the Big Ten’s top-ranked conference rushing attack this season with 234.8 yards per game. But the Gophers face another tough contest this week against the Hawkeyes, who only give up 67.1 yards per game, tops in the conference.

The rushing game has been a strong suit for Minnesota during Kuppe’s tenure.

During his junior campaign, Minnesota owned the conference’s second-best rushing attack. As a sophomore, he helped the Gophers become the Big Ten’s fifth-ranked rushing team and post the second-best passing offense.

Meanwhile, the workmanlike Kuppe has started all but one game the past three seasons, missing last year’s game with Murray State due to back spasms.

The presence of Kuppe and Carter, also a fifth-year senior, has helped speed the maturation of two freshmen inserted into the offensive line this season, center Greg Eslinger and guard Mark Setterstrom.

“Obviously, his experience has been valuable,” assistant coach Mitch Browning said. “He has excellent work habits. He is very coachable. He is one of those guys that love to play football, and you can push him. He doesn’t complain about being pushed too hard or working too hard.”

Kuppe has shown moves throughout the line as well. As a sophomore, he started at right tackle. As a junior, he moved to left tackle as was named honorable mention All-Big Ten before returning to the right side this season.

Kuppe has seen many ups and downs during his time as a Gopher, including the team’s first bowl games in 13 years, a disappointing 4-7 finish last year and an upcoming bowl this season.

“My first year, you could see we were on the rise,” Kuppe said. “And then we went to back-to-back bowl games. My junior year, we went back down a bit, and that was hard. I thought we would stay on top and keep the momentum.

“This year has been great,” he said.

And Kuppe could not think of anything better than hoisting the Floyd of Rosedale and Paul Bunyan’s Axe above his head during each of his last two regular season games. If the Gophers pull out those wins, you might see Kuppe show off more dance moves, this time in celebration.

Brian Hall covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]