Minnesota-bred talent feeds Gophers’ offensive line success

Much of the focus at Big Ten media days was on Minnesota’s offensive line.

David McCoy

CHICAGO – The first thing Minnesota football coach Glen Mason talked about when he addressed the media Monday at the 2005 Big Ten Conference Football Media Days was his offensive line.

Two seniors on that line – guard Mark Setterstrom and center Greg Eslinger – accompanied Mason to Chicago on Monday and Tuesday.

“I feel (Eslinger) is the best center in college football, and he’s the best center I’ve ever been around,” Mason said. “(Setterstrom) is of All-American stature, although he hasn’t received it. He has been overshadowed by the play of Eslinger, but he’s been just as good in every sense of the word at guard as Greg is at center.”

The offensive line was a consistent theme for Minnesota at the media days. And it was fitting – it has also been a consistent theme on the field.

Eslinger was an All-American last year, and Setterstrom was second-team All-Big Ten. But their accolades are nothing new; Minnesota has been one of the best producers of offensive linemen in the Big Ten in recent years.

Before Eslinger, Minnesota’s Ben Hamilton was a first-team All-American in 1999 and 2000. Along with Eslinger and Setterstrom, graduated tackle Rian Melander was first-team All-Big Ten last year.

Four former Gophers offensive linemen are currently playing in the NFL, including Melander with the Vikings, Adam Haayer with the Arizona Cardinals, Joe Quinn with the Green Bay Packers and Hamilton with the Denver Broncos.

But what might be most impressive is that Minnesota has been able to do so without highly rated recruits. Neither Eslinger nor Setterstom were recruited by any other Division I schools.

“I think the Midwest in general produces real good offensive linemen,” Eslinger said. “And that’s just a credit here within the state to get those offensive linemen. Minnesota is kind of a hot zone for them.”

It’s true. Eslinger, a Bismarck, N.D., native, is the exception to the rule. But most of the quality offensive linemen the Gophers have produced have come from the state of Minnesota.

Setterstrom is from Northview, Minn.; Melander is from Shoreview, Minn.; Haayer is from Wyoming, Minn.; and Hamilton is from Plymouth, Minn. Vikings All-Pro center Matt Birk, who played college ball at Harvard, is from St. Paul.

Setterstrom said that has a lot to do with the state’s general mentality.

“I’d say the attitude of Minnesota in general is kind of hard-working,” Setterstrom said. “So I think it’s kind of that mentality. You’ve got to work to get where you want to be.”

Most have had to bulk up first. Eslinger was only 250 pounds his first year, and Setterstrom said he was approximately 270. Eslinger is now 285 while Setterstrom tips the scale at 310.

But Mason said when he’s recruiting offensive linemen, size isn’t his biggest priority.

Whatever he’s doing, it seems to be doing the job so far.

“Because of what we do on offense, we really look for the more athletic guy,” Mason said. “And we’re not bashful about taking a guy that’s a little undersized, and then through the weight program, develop him into an offensive lineman.”