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P.J. Fleck recalled the episode with a chuckle.

Debbie Schmitz, the mother of Gophers center John Michael Schmitz, walked into Fleck's office and wanted an explanation from the football coach.

" 'I just want to know why my son's not playing,' " Fleck said from Big Ten media days in July. "I had no idea she was coming, but she was on a mission in saying, 'Why is my son not playing?' I told her the reasons, and she said, 'Thank you very much,' and drove back to Chicago."

John Michael Schmitz was a third-year sophomore during that 2019 season, and he hadn't yet broken into the starting lineup. "It was nothing John Michael was doing wrong,'' Fleck said, "but he wasn't ready yet. It was coming, it was close, and that's all she wanted to hear."

John Michael persevered through those frustrations and eventually started four games that season.

"I was kind of going through some hard things and wanted to air some things out, but we got through it," Schmitz said. "We kept rowing the boat like we always say, and yeah, here we are."

Here he is, indeed.

Schmitz enters the 2022 season — his sixth with the Gophers — as one of the top returning offensive linemen in the nation. He's a preseason first-team All-America selection by Athlon Sports and is on the watch list for the Rimington Trophy, the award given to the best center in college football. He's poised to become the Gophers' most-decorated offensive lineman since Greg Eslinger, a two-time All-America center who won the Rimington and Outland trophies (best interior lineman) in 2005.

The lone returnee from a group of starting linemen that played together for the past three seasons, Schmitz will help break in four new starters up front. Fleck is more than comfortable with Schmitz's leadership abilities.

"When your best players are your hardest workers, they can bring everybody along with them,'' he said. "John Michael's brought the whole offensive line.''

Last year, the Gophers offensive line followed its center's lead in bludgeoning opposing defenses. The Gophers averaged 198 rushing yards per game, despite using five different starting backs, and ranked third in the nation in time of possession (35 minutes, 25 seconds per game). Schmitz drew praise from those who study offensive line play. Pro Football Focus, for example, gave him its third-highest run blocking grade for a center since 2019, trailing only Iowa's Tyler Linderbaum, last year's Rimington winner, and Alabama's Landon Dickerson, the 2020 honoree.

While flattered by the preseason bouquets, Schmitz's focus is on the season ahead.

"It doesn't matter until the season's over,'' he said. "We'll look up and see who's an All-American then.''

Advice from a legend

When discussing great centers in Gophers football history, the conversation quickly turns to Eslinger, a four-year starter who combined great mobility and intelligence to forge a career that should put him in College Football Hall of Fame conversation. Schmitz's height is generously listed at 6-4, and his 320 pounds includes tree trunk-sized thighs. Eslinger is impressed with what he's seen from Schmitz.

"He seems to play with a lot of calm and understanding of what's going on,'' Eslinger said. "He plays with some confidence that can only be obtained with years of experience. With that comes a lot of knowledge on how to prepare for those tougher, tighter situations. He seems like a guy who's been there, done that.''

Eslinger visited Gophers spring practice, met with Schmitz and gave him some advice.

"Just enjoy the experience,'' he said. "A lot of that pressure you put on yourself can be overwhelming. You have to take a step back and enjoy it on the field and enjoy it off the field with the guys and the camaraderie you've gained.''

'You can't have a better kid'

Schmitz developed his skills at Homewood-Flossmoor High School in the southwestern Chicago suburb of Flossmoor. His offensive line coach in high school, Tom Cicero, remembers a player who quickly made an impact upon transferring in before his junior season.

"You can't have a better kid than John Michael Schmitz,'' Cicero said. "Anything that we would ask, anything that we would request of him, he would do to the best of his abilities.''

Schmitz played left tackle in high school, but college recruiters pictured him as a center. "There were a lot of questions about his height at the time and his ability if he could play inside,'' Cicero said. "We were telling them, 'Hey, he can play anywhere.' ''

Cicero describes Schmitz's on-field demeanor as "relentless and nasty. … If you beat him once, I can almost guarantee you won't beat him again.''

Schmitz originally committed to Western Michigan but instead followed Fleck to Minnesota. After redshirting in 2017, he played on special teams the next year before getting his chance to start in a 34-7 romp over Nebraska in 2019.

"After that, I knew I could play and be a huge impact player in the Big Ten,'' Schmitz said.

He's become that and more during his six years in Minnesota, with the chance to finish his career on a high note.

"It's been a great journey, honestly,'' Schmitz said. "I wouldn't change anything about it.''