That 9-4 season and Holiday Bowl victory? Great finish, but it’s in the past.
The controversy over a threatened players’ boycott of that bowl? They’re turning the page.
The changing of coaches and attitude? Full steam ahead.
As the Gophers football team prepares to open its first training camp under high-energy coach P.J. Fleck, players expressed a mix of optimism, curiosity and confidence during the team’s media day on Monday at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex.
“We have a lot of good players, a lot of talent on our team. But in terms of record, we’re just focusing on getting better. Change our best,’’ said junior center Jared Weyler, echoing one of Fleck’s catch phrases he’s used to set a new tone after being hired in early January to replace the fired Tracy Claeys.
Weyler and his teammates open training camp on Tuesday, 30 days ahead of the Aug. 31 season opener against Buffalo. That’s roughly four weeks for Fleck to fine-tune his system — and for his players to learn it on the fly.
“It’s an exciting time, the opening of training camp,’’ Fleck said. “It’s kind of like opening the gifts on Christmas morning — you get to see what you have.’’
What Fleck has won’t be known until the Gophers take the field and throw a block in anger against an opponent. But his aim is to have a team that has fully bought in on the changes he’s made.
Consider Rodney Smith, the team’s leading rusher in 2016, on board.
‘’Any time you have new coaches, it’s high energy and you have to prove yourself to every coach all over again, and that’s different,’’ said Smith, a junior. “Guys have to go out ready to compete. You have to be ready to compete all the time.’’
And competition will be a theme that weaves its way throughout training camp, especially at quarterback.
Conor Rhoda, a senior and former walk-on, and Demry Croft, a sophomore who redshirted last year, are battling to be the starter. The two have thrown a combined 33 collegiate passes, and Fleck is looking for someone to seize the job.
‘’What I’m looking for is somebody to take ownership of our football team,’’ Fleck said. “[Florida State coach] Jimbo Fisher had a quote from ACC media day. ‘If you have a tough quarterback, you have a tough team.’ We have to find out how tough our quarterbacks are.’’
Toughness shouldn’t be a problem at running back. Along with Smith, the Gophers have junior Shannon Brooks, their leading rusher from 2015. The duo likely will be called upon frequently, and Brooks likes what he sees from the offense under Fleck and new coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca.
“I feel like this offense is very aggressive — not scared to put up points,’’ Brooks said. “Definitely want to go for it in certain situations. Like fourth-and-1, fourth-and-2, you might see the offense stay out there.’’
The Gophers defense took some offseason hits, especially along the line, but it will have an anchor up front in tackle Steven Richardson, a 6-0, 292-pound senior entering his fourth year as a starter. Richardson said he has been impressed with new defensive coordinator Robb Smith.
“His teaching style is a lot like Coach Fleck, very energetic and demanding,’’ he said.
A deep linebacker corps has Fleck and Smith looking for ways to maximize snaps for some speedy athletes like Blake Cashman, who led the team with 7 ½ sacks last year.
Cashman, coming off surgeries on both shoulders, sees big things for the Gophers. “I think this defense can be great, there’s no question about that,” he said. “I expect everyone to build off what we did last year, and I’m excited to see what we can do.’’