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Gophers tight end Nate Wozniak expresses his love to 'hit people'

Minnesota Golden Gophers tight end Nate Wozniak rushes with the ball after making a catch in the second quarter against the Maryland Terrapins at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Sept. 30, 2017. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — At 6-foot-10, Gophers tight end Nate Wozniak is the tallest skill position player in college football, and although he grew up in basketball-centric Indiana, playing hoops wasn't really for him.

Wozniak gave up basketball after his junior year at Center Grove High School in Greenwood, Ind.

Why?

"Because I love to hit people, man, that's why," Wozniak said Tuesday, Nov. 14. "I was too physical to play basketball. I always fouled out."

The senior's aggressiveness on the football field helped pave the way for the Gophers to run all over Nebraska in a 54-21 blowout victory. Minnesota's 409 rushing yards was the eighth-highest total in school history.

Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Wozniak was able to push his defender down to where the center would have been, opening a huge parcel for the Gophers quarterback Demry Croft and running backs Rodney Smith and Kobe McCrary to run.

Fleck complimented tackles Donnell Greene and Sam Schlueter and the guards and center inside "but I tell you what," Fleck said. "Big Woz, man, what a stud. He was moving people. We moved people better than we ever have. Our pad level was better. Our aggression was better. Our hand placement was better."

Wozniak and the offensive line will need another strong performance in an 11 a.m. kickoff Saturday against Northwestern. The Wildcats (7-3, 5-2) have allowed an average of 109 rushing yards a game, second-best in the Big Ten this season.

"They have been impressive throughout the year, they haven't given up much to the run," Wozniak said. "But we are definitely not going to give up on running the ball."

Northwestern's Big Ten-worst pass defense is giving up 278 yards a game, and opponents this season have thrown the ball on 55 percent of snaps.

Wozniak said he's had to mature from being a bit "awkward" with his height as a freshman in 2013. He's added 35 pounds and weighs 280.

Wozniak had about 30 family and friends in his home state for the Gophers' 31-17 loss at Purdue on Oct. 7 and anticipates a similar number of supporters Saturday in Evanston, Ill.

After quitting basketball to focus on football, he Wozniak was told by most college recruiters he was either too tall or had to move to offensive tackle.

"I stopped talking to them right then and there," Wozniak said. "They were people that didn't believe in me. I wanted to go with people that believed in me."

Wozniak has taken some flack from teammates for not scoring a touchdown this season. He has seven receptions for 104 yards, with two big plays ending inside the 5-yard line.

Against Maryland, Wozniak had a 23-yard run after the catch but was tripped up (or tripped himself up) and taken down at the Terrapins' 3-yard line.

Against Middle Tennessee, Wozniak had an impressive tight-rope along the sideline on a 50-yard reception, but was brought down at Maryland's 5.

Before this year, Wozniak had a total of 21 receptions for 210 yards. He says he takes more pride in dominating running performances like Saturday but acknowledges thinking about that elusive touchdown.

"I don't think scoring is something that I ever really focus on," he said. "But once I get in there, it's going to be unbelievable."

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.

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