With the spring game over, Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck had more reason to be optimistic this year than he had when he took over the job a year ago.
Fleck talked a lot this spring about how the additions from the 2017 and ’18 recruiting classes have given the team depth in his second season.
You could see that a number of the players from those classes, including the seven early enrollees from 2018 and the freshmen who redshirted in 2017, will be key parts of the Gophers this season, as those players were on the field in big numbers on Thursday.
Last year around the time of the spring game the Gophers roster was so depleted that they couldn’t even run two teams on the field and had to do more of a scrimmage. They had 22 players injured last year and couldn’t field a decent offensive line.
A big reason for that is that the 2015 recruiting class, which had helped the Gophers win the 2016 Holiday Bowl over Washington State, lost 18 players through suspension, transfers, academic issues and other reasons, which really hurt the depth for the Gophers.
On Thursday, the Gold team defeated the Maroon team 24-20, and Fleck pointed out the obvious — the Gophers are going to rely on a lot on the underclassmen who make up 77 percent of the roster.
That young group will look to try to improve the record this year after the Gophers went 5-7 last season and ended the year with losses to Northwestern and Wisconsin with a combined score of 70-0.
“We have a very young football team, as you got a chance to see [Thursday],” Fleck said. “I’m sure the commentating as you went through, I think there is only nine scholarship seniors and maybe 12 juniors, something like that. We’re really young and every time there was a play made, ‘Hey, a tackle by a redshirt freshman or a true freshman or a true sophomore.’ But I’m really proud of our guys and the spring they had. We’re going to finish up on Monday and be done with spring.”
If you wanted a good example of how the team is going to rely on depth, consider Mohamed Ibrahim, a redshirt freshman who flew under the radar last season because he was on the scout team.
Thursday, he rushed for 104 yards on 19 carries and looked like a tough runner who will get a chance to see a lot of action with fellow running back Shannon Brooks out for the season because of a leg injury.
And on top of the underclassmen who made nice showings at the spring game, 18 more freshmen will be joining the team in June, and Fleck has said there’s no doubt some of those players will get playing time in 2018.
Fleck knew about depth
Fleck wouldn’t throw the previous coaching staff under the bus, but the numbers paint a clear picture when you look at the effect that the mass exodus of players from the 2015 recruiting class — players who would be seniors or redshirt juniors on this year’s squad — had on the depth of the Gophers when Fleck arrived.
“Whatever happened prior to me being here, we knew the situation we were walking into,” Fleck said. “That’s one thing I have continued to say, that we knew the situation we were walking into. We knew it would take time and there would be a depth issue and a numbers issue.
“The minute you go through things like that, which we went through a year and a half ago, and it might not have hurt people that particular year, but it’s going to set you back a few years when things like that happen — especially when you have that kind of attrition in one year and then you make a coaching change and bring in a whole new culture, a whole new philosophy, a whole new way of doing things. That takes time to get back. It’s not just the numbers but the change of culture.”
Looking at that 2015 class, the Gophers brought in 31 recruits, and today 13 of those players remain: Brooks, Colton Beebe, Blake Cashman, Winston DeLattiboudere, Bronson Dovich, Jonathan Femi-Cole, Jacob Herbers, Jacob Huff, Julian Huff, Matt Morse, Quinn Oseland, Antonio Shenault and Bryce Witham.
The 2016 class was a different story as the Gophers still have 16 out of the 24 recruits from that class on the squad. And the 2017 recruiting class, which featured 25 players, has seen three players leave the program.
Fleck said that kind of movement on the roster is not uncommon at any Division I program, especially with a coaching change.
“The normal attrition that happens when a coaching change happens, everybody understands that,” he said. “I am not for everybody. Not every coach that comes in is going to be just like the last coach. If anything a lot of times they’re the complete opposite.
“So there is that transitional period over the course of a year or two that every coach and every university has to be able to see that and understand that. That’s what we’re going through right now.”
Yes, the Gophers feel like they’re making all the right moves in getting their team depth built up, even if Fleck knows it will take time for that talent to show results at the Big Ten level.
• With the Timberwolves set to play Houston in the franchise’s first playoff game in 14 years, it’s worth noting that the Rockets will be without former Wolves forward Luc Mbah a Moute, a key member of their team. Mbah a Moute dislocated his right shoulder Tuesday in Los Angeles. He was averaging 7.5 points in 25.6 minutes per game.
• Point guard Jeff Teague on why the Wolves can compete in this series: “This is a talented group. We have a lot of talent on this team. In the playoffs, you need guys who can make shots and be able to take over games at times. I think we have a lot of people that have moments.”
• There’s a chance that the Wolves could have a father-son combination on their history books if they get a chance to draft Gary Trent Jr. of Apple Valley. Gary Trent Sr. played with the Wolves from 2001 to ’04. NBADraft.net has Trent Jr. as a lottery pick while ESPN has him as a second-round pick. Trent Jr. will be one of three college basketball players from Minnesota who will get interest from the pros next year, the others being Xavier’s J.P. Macura (Lakeville North) and Stanford’s Reid Travis (DeLaSalle).
• Twins manager Paul Molitor is not only having to deal with his day-to-day business of leading the team but also trying to deal with having so many off days and getting players playing time. “It’s tough with all of these off days. I’m trying to keep everybody involved the best that I can,” he said. “With all the lefthanded hitters we have we have to find some breaks for those guys and mix it up once in a while. You want to make sure the guys that are role players get a chance to feel like they’re part of the club.”
• Twins President Dave St. Peter said the league office is aware the Twins want fewer home games in April. “The reality of it is that that has been suggested, I assure you, at the highest levels,” St. Peter said. “It will be suggested again. Hopefully we can work to figure that out.”