As the Gophers’ first-team offense ran through a hurry-up drill, coach P.J. Fleck barked commands and encouragement through a wireless microphone into the speaker system at the Gibson-Nagurski complex’s outdoor practice field. Fittingly, the song booming in the background was Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.”
Friday night, Fleck and the Gophers gave the public and the media a glimpse of this new program during an open practice attended by roughly 400. And what was apparent right away: This team will practice under pressure.
Fleck, for example, would squirt water to distract his kicker and holder during field goal attempts. He’d try to get a punt returner flummoxed by chucking a blocking dummy at them as they fielded the ball. Such tactics are designed for players to be quick and decisive when the plays start counting for real.
“We’ve gotta get a lot faster,” said Fleck, whose team will have another open practice at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. “We condition during practice and put them in a lot of very tough positions in practice. We put them in situations that you’d like to say will be harder here than in a game.”
Players are welcoming the increased tempo so far during training camp.
“The speed is unbelievable here,” said sophomore Carter Coughlin, who has moved from linebacker to defensive end. “The speed has really kept us on our toes and allowed us to progress extremely fast. We get in 90 plays a day within an hour and 20 minutes. That tempo is honestly faster than a game tempo, so it’s preparing us for a game. It’s gonna slow things down for us in a game.”
Much of that tempo change comes from the Gophers’ new offense, under Fleck and coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. Using a no-huddle approach will be an adjustment from what Minnesota ran under former coach Tracy Claeys.
“It’s definitely an adjustment,” said senior tight end Brandon Lingen, who was limited to three games last year because of shoulder, collarbone and foot injuries. “I’ve been part of a huddle team for the past couple of years. To see signals coming in rather than just getting it in the huddle is something you just have to learn.”
Learning will be of utmost importance at quarterback, where senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft split the snaps with the first-team offense Friday.
“I like that we have some consistency in some areas [at quarterback], but we don’t have a lot of consistency in a lot of areas. I do like that they’re communicating more and connecting more with their teammates,” Fleck said. “Part of being the quarterback is the ultimate leader of the football team. When things go right, you’re gonna get a lot of the credit. When things go wrong, people are gonna point the finger at you. You’ve got to be able to handle that and take accountability for other people’s actions on the offense.”
Lingen sees growth in both Rhoda and Croft.
“It’s fun to see those two guys compete — but not compete against each other but with each other,” he said. “They’re helping each other out.”
Fleck has stressed how much his team must improve before it opens the season Aug. 31 against Buffalo. What he’s seen through four practices has him cautiously optimistic.
“It’s hard to judge when we’ve only been in pads twice, but I’m really proud of the way they’re working, how they’re working,” Fleck said. “… We’re getting better. We just have a long way to go.”