Duluth, MN (Northland's NewsCenter) --- For Garth Heikkinen, this is it -- his final season on the offensive line of the University of Minnesota-Duluth (UMD) football team. Ask him about that, and the answer you'll get is that time moves much too quickly.
"As a freshman, you don't really know what to expect. You're about to meet 100 new guys, and now here I am as a senior," Heikkinen said. "I think there are only nine of us original seniors left, and they're some of my best friends. I've lived with some of them over the years and gotten to know all of them really well."
Entering the 2012 season with that senior class, Heikkinen has already racked up 37 overall wins, three conference titles, and the 2012 NCAA Division II championship.
"He's developed himself to be one of the top offensive linemen in Division II," UMD head coach Bob Nielson said, "so the honors that he's earned certainly represent the fact that he's capable and will play at a very high level for us. He's really a leader for us in the offensive line group."
Move to the individual level, and the former Duluth Central star may well need his own trophy case before leaving UMD. Just last season alone, Heikkinen was named by four different organizations as a Division II All-American.
"Garth's earned everything he's gotten. He's one of the best in the country at the Division II level, if not higher levels," Bulldogs senior quarterback Chase Vogler said. "He works hard, and it's great having him up on the front line. We've got a great offensive line this year that I'm excited to be behind. They're what makes our offense go, and if they can be at their best, we'll be at our best."
"All those preseason and postseason All-American awards are real big," UMD senior tight end Ben Helmer said. "It's fun playing next to a guy like that. He's a heck of a player, and he's a lot of fun to have on the offense."
One of the biggest things Heikkinen points to as a reason for his continued success is the defensive unit standing across from him every day in practice.
"We're going against one of the best defenses in the country every day at practice," Heikkinen said. "Over the years, I've been able to see a lot of different defenses and different personnel. I think we have one of the more talented defenses year in and year out, and the scheme that our coaches put together is one of the most difficult to pick up on, too."
This year, the 6-foot-4, 315 pound Heikkinen is joined on the left side by 6-foot-6, 310 pound offensive tackle Jake Bscherer. That makes for a strong UMD presence on that side of the field.
"Between him and Jake, there's over 600 pounds on the left side," Bulldogs sophomore running back Brian Lucas said. "Our joke is that we don't really want to run the other way. They're just so big altogether, it's going to be a fun year."
"The biggest thing that jumps out at me is he's a leader," Bscherer said of Heikkinen. "He's always taking charge of everything. It's the way he plays. He plays fast, and he plays physical. Definitely, he is one heck of an offensive lineman."
The folks at USA College Football agree with that assessment, naming Heikkinen to the 2012 preseason All-American squad. He said it's nice, but the ones that come later in the season are the ones he wants.
"I like to get the ones at the end of the year," Heikkinen said. "Those are the ones when you really feel accomplished. You've got to understand, too, that you don't get individual awards without team success. That really helps the whole individual process, being successful as a team first."
And when asked how many he'd give back to win a second national title with UMD, there was no hesitation in his answer.
"I'd trade all of them to go out my senior year with another national championship," the Duluth native said with a smile. "For sure."