Shannon Brooks, team player that he is, has Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck’s catchphrases down pat.
Ask the junior running back how he is doing, and you will get an “elite” as a response. And he will throw out a “change your best” as his goal for improvement.
But when asked Tuesday if he is ready to start hitting opponents rather than teammates after three weeks of training camp, Brooks got a mischievous smile on his face.
“Yes sir! You know it,” he said. “That’s what it’s about.”
That sentiment could sum up the entire team’s thoughts, with the Aug. 31 season opener against Buffalo at TCF Bank Stadium on the horizon.
“This really marks the end of training camp today, in terms of us,” Fleck said. “Now as we go into the end of this week, we shift towards Buffalo.”
Fleck’s first training camp in Minnesota featured a team adjusting to — and embracing — its new coach’s ways. Up-tempo practices featured competitive situational drills, all set to a soundtrack of rock to hip-hop to modern country with a coach mic’d up like Pitbull.
“What I saw through the 3½-week span was guys wanting to get better, guys wanting to practice, guys looking forward to practice, the energy levels going through the roof,” Fleck said. “… Were there some days in there that was hard to get that out of them? Of course there were. But it’s our job to get that out of them.”
Fleck pointed to Brooks and fellow running back Rodney Smith as examples of players who have earned confidence from succeeding and failing. He wants other camp standouts, such as sophomore wide receiver Tyler Johnson, to join them.
“It’s one thing to be a player that plays the game. There’s another aspect of being a starter and having these expectations and having the weight of the program on you,” Fleck said.
Checking in on the QBs
The Gophers’ co-starters at quarterback, senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft, on Tuesday had what Fleck called “one of our best practices at quarterback.”
Often during the six practices that were open to the media, the Gophers defense asserted itself at the expense of the offense. It sounds as if the offense struck back Tuesday.
“As a head coach, you never go home happy. Ever,” Fleck said, indicating that if the defense has won, the offense has lost and vice versa. “Tonight, I’m still not going to go home happy, but I’m closer to happy because it was more balanced.”
Brooks sees an offense united around whichever QB is in the game.
“Whoever plays, the offense will be fine,” he said. “We’re not worried about, ‘Oh, he’s in there. Then he’s in there.’ ”
Throughout camp, Fleck asked for improvement from Rashad Still, but the coach said he isn’t holding the junior receiver to a higher standard than any other player.
“Rashad’s had an up-and-down training camp,” Fleck said. “But you see a ton of progress he’s making. … Sometimes he’s taken two steps back to go three steps forward.”
QB or not QB
Sophomore linebacker Kamal Martin, who played in all 13 games last year, asserted himself during training camp but still has a soft spot for his days as quarterback at Burnsville High School.
“I always mess around with [Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk] Ciarrocca, saying ‘I can still throw the ball a little bit,’ ” Martin said. “But I love playing linebacker.”