Leading the charge for Gopher football
by Brad Miller
Gopher right tackle Jake Kuppe
When asked if Jake Kuppe would play a big part in the Gophers' success this year, Minnesota Head Football Coach Glen Mason said, "Jake Kuppe is a big part of anything."
What an understatement. At 6'7 and 350 pounds the Gophers' mammoth right tackle was listed as the Big Ten's largest player last season. He was also a large part of an offensive line that ranked 14th in the nation last year in rushing. But as one of only two returning starters this season, Kuppe finds himself as the anchor of a young and inexperienced line.
"Jake is unquestionably the leader of this unit." said Gophers co-offensive coordinator and tackles coach Mitch Browning. "He obviously has a lot of experience. He's a hard worker and leads by example. He's been a lot of fun to coach, and we will sorely miss him after this season."
And what of Kuppe after this season, is he good enough to play on Sundays next year? Browning says yes, but not without improvement in a few areas. "He needs to develop NFL quickness." Jake has the size, and the desire, but he just needs to get all the working parts in sync, especially his footwork and quickness in pass protection."
Kuppe himself says he wants to give the next level a shot, and agrees with his coach. "I definitely need to get quicker in order to become a better pass protector. If I can improve on that, I think I have a good chance to make it. I've already played against some of the best talent at the college level, and I hope to improve enough to play against the best at the NFL level."
As far as this year goes, Kuppe will lead like he always has, by example. "I'm not a very vocal person, so I let my play do the talking for me. If you do your job, others will see that, and respect you for it."
Kuppe didn't make an immediate impact at the U of M, but it didn't take him long to crack the lineup. Like many freshman, he red shirted his first year. In his second season, (red shirt freshman year) he played in eleven games, starting one and earning his first letter.
The start came against Penn State in Happy Valley, a 24-23 Gopher win that Kuppe says is one of the greatest moments in his college career. "That game against Penn State and the win at Ohio State, the following year were definitely the highlights of my college football career."
In his sophomore season, Kuppe moved into the starting lineup, starting all 12 games at right tackle, and earned his second letter. Last season Kuppe was one of the anchors of the best offensive lines in the nation. He moved to left tackle and started all but one game, missing the Murray State game due to back spasms. He was named honorable mention All-Big Ten by both the coaches and media. This season he moved back to right tackle.
Minnetonka's gentle giant
Kuppe made a name for himself at Minnetonka High School. As a senior, he was named to Super Preps All-Midwest region team, and was a Prep Star All-American. He was first team all-conference and all-metro, and honorable mention all-state.
But football wasn't the only sport at which Kuppe excelled. He was a three year starter on the hardwood, and a standout shot putter on the track and field team. He helped lead the Minnetonka basketball team to a state championship in 1998. A team that included standouts Shane Schilling and Ryan Keating. Keating is now the starting quarterback for perennial division three powerhouse St. Johns, and one of Kuppe's best friends. "Jake works hard. A lot of people say he doesn't work hard because he's so big, but that's not true. I hope and pray that Jake will be able to make some money in the future playing football. He deserves it, that's for sure."
Keating has fond memories of Kuppe in high school, "He was a better basketball player by far. He was an average football player, but he turned himself into a great one. I think he was the best center in the state. Joel Pryzbilla was a better defender, but at that time, Jake was a better offensive player."
In fact, basketball was Kuppe's favorite sport growing up. "I was more passionate about basketball. As a kid, I devoted more of my time to hoops." Kuppe, who moved from Bloomington to Minnetonka in the 8th grade said Michael Jordan was his favorite athlete. "I hated the Bulls, but I loved Michael." Kuppe was no slouch on the hardwood either. His best season was his sophomore year, when he averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game. In fact, he received offers to play basketball at North Dakota State, South Dakota State, Wisconsin-Green Bay and Northern Illinois. But he knew by his junior year in high school that football was where he would ultimately succeed. "I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to play big time college football."
Minnesota born and bred
The summer between his sophomore and junior seasons Kuppe turned heads at the Gophers Football Camp. Entering his senior season, he was being coveted by Iowa, Iowa State, Michigan State and Wisconsin, but he committed to the Gophers on September 1st. "I grew up a Gopher fan, and deep down I knew I wanted to stay home. I liked Coach Mason right off the bat. I knew he was going to turn this program around, and I wanted to be a part of that."
Playing in front of his friends and family was a big factor in his decision as well. "They celebrate the good times, and are supportive during the bad." Jake has his priorities in order off the field as well. He's scheduled to graduate in December and will earn a degree in elementary education. He already works with youth programs in Minnetonka and would like the opportunity to coach football at his alma mater some day. "I love working with kids, and when my football career is over, I will be a teacher. But I would also love to coach football at Minnetonka. I've made some amazing relationships with teachers and coaches there, and would love to return some day."
Imagine this, fifteen years from now, after a stellar NFL career, Minnetonka's
favorite son returns home to coach his former high school team. Of course, the trip doesn't have to be that far. The Vikings could always use a big body.