For an offensive line at any level of football, it’s always good to have a Swiss Army knife of sorts, a player who coaches can plug in at multiple positions with minimal disruption.
In the Gophers’ case, that do-it-all lineman is Conner Olson, a third-year sophomore who showed his value by starting all 12 games last year — six at guard and six at center when injuries struck center Jared Weyler. Through the first week of training camp, Olson has worked with the first unit at left guard, but his adaptability is something the Gophers coaching staff knows is available.
“The fact that he can play center for us, he gives us flexibility so we can put the best five guys out there,” offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. “That is ultimately your goal every year, but sometimes, positionally, it just won’t fit. You’re trying to force it, but you finally realize you’re trying to put a square peg in a round hole, and it’s just not gonna fit.”
The role fits just fine for Olson. Be it guard or center, he has no preference.
“Not particularly. I love both,” he said. “I love playing football, so as long as I’m on the field, I can’t complain.”
To earn the chance to get onto the field with the Gophers, Olson had to develop. First, the former Monticello High School standout had to add some bulk to his 6-5 frame. He’s now 300 pounds, up about 60 from his junior year in high school.
“I didn’t think I was going to gain that much weight that fast, but somehow I managed to pull it off,” he said. “A lot of chocolate milk and a lot of peanut butter sandwiches. Here I am.”
That’s good news for the Gophers, who have seniors Weyler (center) and Donnell Greene (tackle) as likely starters but also rely on sophomores, redshirt freshmen and true freshmen for depth on the offensive line. Coach P.J. Fleck sees talent that needs time to grow.
“We’re deeper at O-line as an example, but we’re not deep with competitive depth where if you lose two guys, you still feel really good,” Fleck said. “We’re not at that point yet.”
Olson is encouraged by the return to health of Weyler, who has missed nine games over the past two seasons because of injuries.
“Jared is the leader of our offensive line. He’s got the most experience,” Olson said. “With him and Donnell on each side of me, that helps me be really confident and helps the rest of our line be super confident.”
Coaching turnover has Olson with his third offensive line coach in as many years, with Brian Callahan taking over for Ed Warinner, who left to eventually become Michigan’s offensive line coach. In 2016, Olson, a redshirt, had Bart Larson as his position coach on Tracy Claeys’ staff. Olson credits each.
“Every coach has their own individual style. Every coach I’ve had have been great influences on my game. Love all of them to death,” he said. “Coach Callahan is a great conceptual teacher. It’s really helped me understand the game at a different level.”
And if the game calls for him to switch positions, Olson will be ready.
“Under our previous position coach, every single guy knew every single position on the offense for every play. Switching wasn’t too much,” he said. “I got my reps in, so I knew what I was doing. And not to mention I had older guys all around me, and that was really helpful, too.”