Two weeks ago, when the Gophers were down to four healthy offensive linemen, severely limiting what they could do in practice, new coach P.J. Fleck thought ahead to Saturday's spring game at TCF Bank Stadium.
"It's going to be a circus, and I literally mean that," he said. "You're going to see the trapeze artists over here. You're going to see the big elephants over here, the tightrope people."
Fleck wasn't complaining. He envisioned various drills the team could run to make it a worthwhile experience for fans.
"It's going to be very, very interesting, I promise you that," Fleck said. "So that's why we want the entire city to come out to watch us."
Imagine Fleck's excitement last weekend, when the Gophers were back to five healthy offensive linemen, allowing them to play some real football.
The coaching staff took advantage one week ago, holding a 118-play scrimmage, and Fleck sounds determined to see more "live" action Saturday. The event is free to fans, and the Gophers will have several recruits on hand, including Edina sophomore Quinn Carroll, a four-star offensive tackle who has drawn offers from the likes of Alabama and Ohio State.
Fleck plans to hold four 15-minute quarters and use running time. The "game" will pit the offense against the defense, and Fleck said he has a "very unique" way of scoring it, with the goal of seeing how various players respond to game-like situations.
"A lot of these guys haven't played a lot, so this is an opportunity to show what you've learned," Fleck said. "I'm really looking for guys who can break through some ceilings, and I expect a lot of guys to do that."
All eyes will be on the quarterbacks, of course, as the Gophers need to replace three-year starter Mitch Leidner.
Senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft have taken most of the first-team reps this spring, ahead of freshmen Seth Green and Tanner Morgan. Fleck plans to name a starter during fall camp.
Rhoda appeared to have the edge earlier this spring, but Croft has come on strong of late. Both need to limit their mistakes, which could be a challenge this fall for the Gophers, considering all these quarterbacks have combined for one college start.
"We're looking for a decisive decisionmaker, within the system, and who can control the ball," Fleck said. "We value the football. I think we went from 117th in turnover margin at Western Michigan [in 2013] to No. 1 in the country last year, and that was the reason we were [13-1]."
The Gophers went 9-4 last season, including a Holiday Bowl win over Washington State, but fired coach Tracy Claeys in the fallout from an alleged September sexual assault involving multiple players.
It already looks like a different team. Beyond the key seniors who graduated — Leidner, Jonah Pirsig, Drew Wolitarsky, Jack Lynn, Scott Ekpe, Hank Ekpe, Nick Rallis, Jalen Myrick and Damarius Travis — three other starters from last season are transferring: center Tyler Moore (to Oklahoma State), guard Connor Mayes (TCU) and defensive end Gaelin Elmore (undecided).
Another starter from last season, cornerback KiAnte Hardin, was among the five players expelled from the alleged sexual assault.
The Gophers still have top-flight running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, but it's been tough to gauge the offense's potential this spring with the line issues. Three of the line's returning starters — Garrison Wright, Vincent Calhoun and Jared Weyler — are recovering from surgery, as is tight end Brandon Lingen.
So this spring has been a chance for the younger linemen to show what they can do. Donnell Greene, Nick Connelly, Bronson Dovich and Conner Olson have been on the field for every meaningful rep the team has taken.
"It has been challenging," said Smith, who rushed for 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns last year. "But like Coach Fleck says, 'It's about how you respond to it. Can't worry about the circumstances.'"