P.J. Fleck came from a midmajor program when the Gophers hired him away from Western Michigan, but he’s surrounded himself with some amazing talent — not only with assistant coaches that came with him, but with some impressive external hirings.
The two biggest names are Ed Warinner and Robb Smith.
Warinner will be the offensive line coach and running game coordinator after serving as Ohio State offensive coordinator/tight ends coach in 2016 and the Buckeyes’ offensive line coach from 2012-15.
Smith was the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Arkansas from 2014-16, and before that he was the linebackers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013. He’s the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at Minnesota.
It’s hard to remember two coaches with better pedigrees joining a new staff the way that Smith and Warinner signed up with Fleck.
But the Gophers coach said his relationships with both go way back.
“I have known Robb for a very long time, and we’ve had a personal relationship, a great friend of mine,” Fleck said. “We coached together at Rutgers, we coached together with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and then he had one of the top 10 defenses with Rutgers at that time. Then we went to Tampa and he went to Arkansas and had a top-15 defense for the first year he was there.
“I think he’s just a phenomenal coordinator, very similar to the system we ran at Western Michigan. That’s why I hired him. A phenomenal person, phenomenal husband, coaches our linebackers, and has done a tremendous job in the short five or six months we’ve been here.”
Fleck also talked about Warinner and how in demand he is as a coach.
“Ed Warinner came over from Ohio State and he was the former three-year offensive coordinator at Ohio State and now he’s coaching our offensive line and handles a lot of the running game,” he said. “Very, very happy to have those guys.
“Ed Warinner is one of the best O-line coaches in the country. He’s had numerous opportunities already within the first five months to leave us and has stayed. He is just in high demand, not only at the collegiate level but at the National Football League level as well. We’re very lucky to have those guys and look forward to the season so we can continue to grow as a football team.”
When asked what made him leave Ohio State, Warinner said it was pretty simple.
“P.J. Fleck got this job and offered me this job here,” he said. “I wanted to come and be a part of a new program at Minnesota, so I joined the staff.”
Was it tough leaving such a winning program?
“I coached there for five years. We were 61-6, we won a national championship, we won a Fiesta Bowl and had a great run,” Warinner said. “It was the greatest five-year run in the history of Ohio State.”
While he was the offensive coordinator for three seasons, he said his focus has always been on the line. He said he’s looking forward to working with a fully healthy Gophers line this summer.
“The offensive linemen I have, I like them a lot,” he said. “We have some very talented guys here. I’m excited to see what the three starters that are missing look like when we start practicing in August. The guys I have now are very talented, hard workers, good people and very coachable.”
So are the offensive line’s struggles solvable?
“Absolutely, for sure we will,” he said.
Warinner also sees some positive signs from some freshmen.
“We signed three offensive line recruits that I’m very high on them, and we think they can help us,” he said. “When? We’ll just have to see whether it’s this year or in the future.”
Smith sees flexibility
Smith brings a world of experience to the Gophers and thinks this year’s squad has the talent to compete in the Big Ten. He believes the defense won’t have to stick to any one style.
“It’s exciting. Our ultimate goal is we’re going to get the best 11 guys on the football field to match the 11 players who are out there for our opponents,” Smith said earlier this spring. “Whether it’s three linebackers, whether it’s four linebackers, we have certain things we want to do within the structure of our defense.
“For us, it’s all about stopping the run, eliminating big plays and creating takeaways, and we’re going to get the best 11 guys out there. I think there’s a lot of talent in this program. We’ve got to keep growing, but very excited about the players we have.”
• Xavier Rhodes signed the largest contract for a defensive player in Vikings history this week (five years, $70 million). He said all of Mike Zimmer’s yelling and coaching really paid off. “It turned out great,” Rhodes said. “He was on me each and every play. There were times we were in the red zone and I had him in the back of my head, ‘Xavier, back up. Xavier, put your inside foot.’ ” Zimmer can be tough, but his players sure seem to benefit.
• Rhodes also pointed to teammate Terence Newman, also a Zimmer disciple, as helping his growth as a player. “Terence Newman is a guy that helped me understand the things I need to work on. … He always told me I had the athletic ability but it’s the knowledge part I needed to gain.”
• Vikings safety Harrison Smith and tight end Kyle Rudolph, who were teammates of Michael Floyd at Notre Dame, pushed for General Manager Rick Spielman to sign the receiver. Floyd put on a real good show Sunday in practice, and it’s obvious once he serves his four-game suspension for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy, he’s going to be a big plus for the Vikings. Floyd is allowed to practice for and play in preseason games until the regular season starts. “So far he’s made some big-time catches,” Zimmer said Sunday. “He’s got some good speed and physicality.”
• Vikings defensive lineman Tom Johnson said new free-agent additions Datone Jones, Will Sutton and draft picks Jaleel Johnson and Ifeadi Odenigbo are getting used to working with defensive line coach Andre Patterson: “Coach Patterson is a guy that kind of molds you,” Johnson said. “So those guys are getting used to the coaching and how we work, and so far they’ve all embraced it.”
• Former outstanding Vikings running back Robert Smith was recently in Mankato for Vikings training camp with his two young children. NFL.com recently ranked Smith and wide receiver Randy Moss as the 10th-best receiver and running back combo of the Super Bowl era.
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. firstname.lastname@example.org