Improved offensive line plows defenses

David La

Prior to the start of the 1999 football season, Gophers offensive tackle Josh Rawlings had a problem.
An infusion of talent on the defensive line threatened to further curtail his playing time, so the senior requested a transfer.
But not to another program — just to the other side of the ball.
“The day I went in to talk to the coaches about (switching to offense), they brought it up to me before I could bring it up to them,” Rawlings said.
Rawlings — now the starting right tackle — thereby became the second such defector on the offensive line, following the lead of former tight end Adam Haayer, who is now the starting left tackle after switching in spring of ’98.
Offensive coordinator Steve Loney had no trepidation whatsoever about his newcomers.
“You can’t take nonathletes and expect them to block athletes,” Loney said. “You can’t have complete slugs, so I think tight-end or defensive-line types can fit in to that group.”
Refugees in place, the Minnesota offensive line is off to a vastly improved season.
Minnesota is tied for ninth in the nation in rushing offense, and has permitted only nine sacks. The line has helped spring running back Thomas Hamner for more than 100 yards rushing against each of the three Big Ten opponents he’s faced this season.
“I’m so proud of them,” Hamner said. “Those guys have been under a lot of criticism and had a lot of doubters and fingers pointed at them, so to see them have success like this is great.”
Those on the line attribute their success to lineage. Rawlings aside, the rest of the line took their collective lumps last season.
The 1998 offense finished eighth in the Big Ten, up from 10th in 1997. This year the expectations have gone up, putting more burden on the group’s shoulders. And arms. And knees.
“Coach Mason said in order for our offense to do well, our offensive line really had to improve,” junior center Ben Hamilton said. “I think most of the guys took it as a personal challenge.”
Hamilton credits the extra summer workouts and drills done by the group for the solid start to this season.
Beyond lifting weights, memorizing playbooks and watching more tape than a film studies major, there is the intangibility of experience, which Loney can’t say enough about.
“Last year you had tackle Adam Haayer, a sophomore, who was playing his first year of college football,” Loney said. “You had guard Ryan Roth, a freshman, who was playing his first year of college football. You had a right tackle situation that we ended up moving the tight end (Troy Duerr) to, which was very unstable. We had a left guard situation that had two different starters in there. So I think what you’ve seen is the continued development of a group. You talk to anybody else, when you build a football team, until you have an offensive line solidified, you’re going to struggle.”
On the topic of experience, Hamilton returns the favor by citing the stability of the offensive system.
“It’s always a little smoother when you have been with the same offensive line coach for two our three years,” Hamilton said. “I think that is a big part of the reason for our line’s improvement.”

Notes
ù A trio of Gophers starters were kept out of contact drills at Wednesday’s practice. Defensive tackle Dyron Russ, defensive end Jon Michals and offensive guard Pat Hau — who started the first four games of the season — were out.

ù Linebacker Curtese Poole, who did not play at Illinois, took repetitions at linebacker during contact drills on Wednesday.
David La Vaque covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]