Life on the line: Trading attention for plenty of aggression

John R. Carter

Ryan Roth and his linemates want respect. After opening holes for one of the Big Ten’s most productive running teams over the past three seasons, they rightfully deserve some.

Minnesota’s rushing offense ranked second in the conference in 1999 at 227 yards per game. Last season the Gophers ran for 197 yards per game, fourth in the Big Ten.

This season Minnesota is back up in the No. 2 spot at just under 230 yards per game. The Gophers are also 10th in the nation in rushing offense.

During the three-year span, most of the credit for the ground game’s success went to former quarterback Billy Cockerham and running back Thomas Hamner, or current backs Tellis Redmon and Marion Barber III.

“We always kid around that we work harder out on the field than any other position,” Roth, a senior guard said. “We’re the big fat guys on the team and we’re doing all the running, the hitting, and the hard work – and we’re not getting any of the glory. So we get glory from each other.”

The offensive line for Minnesota is a close-knit crew. Every Thursday night they go out to eat, usually to a player’s parents’ house. The feast is known to be large in more ways than one.

“We let the tight ends come too,” Jake Kuppe, a junior tackle, said with a smile. “And sometimes we invite (quarterbacks) Asad (Abdul-Khaliq) or Travis (Cole).

“Last year when we went to Jeremiah’s we had beef brisket. The rumor was Mr. Carter bought 25 pounds of meat and we were still looking for more.”

More is also what the line is hungry for on the field – as in more yardage for the Gophers offense.

The line as a whole knows they do the dirty work. But when their performance has helped lead to a pair of bowl appearances, a 1,400-yard rusher in Hamner and a 1,300-yard rusher in Redmon, they know their efforts have played a crucial role in Minnesota’s offense.

And while a few faces up front changed this season with the departure of All-American center Ben Hamilton and All-Big Ten tackle Adam Haayer, the line’s attitude remains the same.

“A couple of years ago the coaches got us believing the team could run the ball if we did some things,” Roth said. “What they said was backed up – we did do well. The guys who filled in this year have no reason to believe those guys before them were any better.”

This season’s starting offensive line is especially interesting – a soap opera starring a juggling group of 6-foot-5, 300-pound bruising football players.

Derek Burns, a 6-foot-5, 281-pound senior, moved from guard to center and replaced Hamilton. Six-foot-3, 270-pound senior Akeem Akinwale switched from back-up center to left guard to fill in for Burns.

The 6-foot-7, 352-pound Kuppe jumped from right tackle to left tackle to replace Haayer, while 6-foot-6, 316-pound senior Matt Anderle moved from the defensive side to the offense unit, and grabbed Kuppe’s old spot at right tackle.

Roth, meanwhile, started the first game of the season at right guard – his position since 1998 – before suffering a calf injury which kept him out of the next four games.

The 6-foot-3, 313-pound Roth was replaced by 6-foot-7, 291-pound junior Jeremiah Carter – the one whose father who didn’t buy enough meat. Roth has since returned, and is filling in as a much-needed back-up.

Quite a bit to keep track of, but Kuppe said the new roles were much easier to get accustomed to than they sound.

“Our game plan and the simplicity of the offense is what makes our line go,” Kuppe said. “Our technique is pretty much the same at each position.”

Co-offensive coordinator Mitch Browning, who oversees the tackles and tight ends, expects the line to continue its improvement the rest of the season.

As for the lack of glory, Browning said it comes with the territory.

“That is the nature of the position,” Browning said. “There are no stats they keep for offensive linemen. It’s an unselfish position.”

Minnesota’s offensive line is unselfish off the field too. Browning is a regular invite to the Thursday night dinners, and when he can fit it in his schedule, he’s always up for a good meal.

You’d think it would be hard for a man half the size of the 352-pound Kuppe to get his hand in before all the food is gone, but Browning is no dummy.

“I just get in front of the line,” Browning said.