With less than three weeks to go before the season opener, the Gophers football team is ready for a dress rehearsal. And that comes Saturday in the form of the first live scrimmage of training camp.
Coach P.J. Fleck has plenty of questions he hopes to answer, and he’ll do that with trial by fire.
“We’re gonna test them in all areas and put them in every situation possible,” Fleck said after Friday’s open practice at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. “Put as much heat and as much pressure on them as we can and see who performs at a high level.”
He was saying that about his entire team, but it applies most importantly at quarterback, the position more than any other that will define the Gophers’ season.
Third-year sophomore Demry Croft and fifth-year senior Conor Rhoda are competing for the starting job, and the scrimmage should go a long way in determining which QB Fleck chooses to take the first snap in the Aug. 31 opener against Buffalo.
“Obviously, [Saturday] is a huge step in that direction for whoever’s gonna take this team over and prove that this is their job,” said Rhoda, who has made one start in his career, in a victory over Maryland last year.
Added Croft, who redshirted last year after playing in three games as a true freshman in 2015: “I just want to see what I need to work on and what the team needs to work on. It’s a little pre-taste of what we need to get done.”
Croft and Rhoda, though coveting the same job, are trying to push each other.
“Competing against each other forces us to come out every single day ready to go,” said Rhoda, a 6-3, 225-pounder who played at Cretin-Derham Hall. “There’s no room for either of us to take a step back if we expect to take over this job.”
For Croft, the battle for the top job has been enjoyable.
“It’s pretty fun, actually, working together out on the field and in the film room,” the lanky 6-5, 205-pounder said. “It’s great that we’re making each other better and the team better.”
Fleck on Friday night gave his team game plans for the scrimmage, which could run from 70 to 120 plays and will not be open to the public or media. Along with quarterback, he listed offensive line, wide receiver and secondary as the key areas to identify starters.
“Biggest thing, we’ve got to solve some depth chart issues,” he said. “We’ve gone live during practice a few times, but we haven’t gone in a game-type situation.”
Fleck said sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr. is progressing well after suffering a hamstring injury during Tuesday’s practice.
“We’re gonna be very, very safe with him, and hopefully have him back for the Buffalo week,” the coach said.
True freshman receiver Chris Autman-Bell, about whom Fleck has raved during training camp, might take longer than Winfield to return from a leg injury suffered Tuesday.
“He might be out just a little bit here; I don’t know how long yet,” Fleck said. “… But it’s not season-ending.”
Fleck indicated the timetable on Autman-Bell’s return could weigh in on a decision to play him or redshirt him.
“You have to determine as you go through the year, do you want to redshirt him?” Fleck said. “We have a saying, ‘Don’t sacrifice what you really want down the road for what you want right now.’ ”
Freshman turns heads
As Fleck determines his depth chart, he made it clear that one true freshman will see action.
“I tell you right now, 82, that freshman, he’s gonna play,” Fleck said of Demetrius Douglas. “He might be one of the best, if not the best, wide receivers we have right now.”
• Kicker Justin Juenemann’s media tour continued Friday morning, with the senior being interviewed on NBC’s “Today” Show after being awarded a scholarship Wednesday — spelled out on a T-shirt fired from an air cannon — in part for his regular visits to the University’s Masonic Children’s Hospital.
• The Gophers’ next practice open to the public will be 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.