COLLEGE FOOTBALL: Minnesota's changing of the guard
MINNEAPOLIS -- The hardest thing wasn't the playing, not for D.J. Burris. It was the huddle. "The playing comes natural," Burris said after Gophers practice this week. "The hardest thing I had to do today was lineup on the right side in the huddl...
MINNEAPOLIS -- The hardest thing wasn't the playing, not for D.J. Burris. It was the huddle.
"The playing comes natural," Burris said after Gophers practice this week. "The hardest thing I had to do today was lineup on the right side in the huddle."
Burris, for the time being, has moved. One of the more versatile of the Gophers' offensive linemen, Burris was informed more than a week ago, the day after the Gophers won in Illinois, that he would be going from left guard, where he has competed with Ryan Orton much of the season, to right guard. That's where he played in high school, and that's where he played last year, when he made the Big Ten Conference's all-freshman team.
Heading into training camp, one of coach Tim Brewster's goals was to settle on a starting offensive line and let it gel. A number of things prevented that, including injury and inexperience. Left tackle Dom Alford has battled sprained ankles. Center Jeff Tow-Arnett sustained a knee ligament injury in Game 2 that kept him out for a while. Guard Ned Tavale has battled injuries, as have Chris Bunders and Trey Davis.
As a result offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar and line coach Phil Meyer have mixed and matched all up and down the line, with nine players seeing significant action through the season.
Close to complete
Playing several linemen won't change. But, coming out of the bye, it appears the Gophers are healthy and as close to settling on a consistent group than any time since training camp.
That means, for now, the depth chart has Alford at left tackle, Orton at left guard backed up by Tavale, Tow-Arnett at center, Burris at right guard and Ryan Wynn at right tackle.
"The injuries hurt," Dunbar said. "The negative side of that is that it's been hard to get five guys (playing together regularly). On the other hand, we were planning on playing seven, eight, nine guys anyway and injuries have forced us to continue to do so. It has given some guys to get the opportunity to play. And so we have a little more depth there."
The Gophers offense has been efficient to date. The team is 6-1, 2-1 in the Big Ten and is third overall in the conference in scoring per game (29.9 points). But it is eighth in total offense and 10th in rushing offense. Quarterback Adam Weber and the offense has avoided turnovers and has been very effective at times.
That said, Weber has at times felt pressure and has taken some hits, enough that he required minor knee surgery the week before the Illinois game. The Gophers have run the ball well at times, but the team's 3.5 yards-per-rush average is 10th in the conference.
The current group on the offensive line, if injuries can be avoided, should put even more consistency in the Gophers lineup. The line is still young, to be sure -- Orton and Wynn are both redshirt freshmen. But Alford, Tow-Arnett and Burris all have significant experience. Given time together, the group should improve as the season goes on.
"That's the goal," Dunbar said. "As we get healthy, and they continue to gain experience, the consistency should improve."
That could mean more time for Weber and more room for running back DeLeon Eskridge.
"We've been moving guys around and guys have been getting hurt," Weber said. "But this week off has helped. Hopefully this week we can find that right group of guys that are playing the best and can find that rhythm we need."
Players like tackles Jason Meinki and Ryan Ruskdashel, along with Davis and Bunders and Tavale, have played well when inserted into the lineup. The good news is that Meyer can now make substitutions for reasons other than injury -- to give someone a rest, for example. The Gophers are heading into Purdue with its healthier, most experienced line in more than a month.
"We had a lot of guys nicked up," Alford said. "Now we have everybody back. I think D.J. feels like he's back at home. I think there will be a lot of improvement."