The difference in expectations for the Gophers football team for the 2019 season compared to 2018 could not be any greater.
In 2017, the Gophers went 5-7, with the final two losses against Northwestern and Wisconsin coming by a combined score of 70-0.
So most pundits expected the 2018 Gophers to be one of the worst teams in the Big Ten. Athlon Sports, the Sporting News and CBS Sports had them pegged 12th out of 14 teams while 247 Sports had them 11th.
But despite the fact that P.J. Fleck was fielding the youngest roster in the country, the Gophers were able to turn their season around, finishing with a 41-10 victory over Purdue and a 37-15 win at Wisconsin. Then the Gophers beat Georgia Tech 34-10 in the Quick Lane Bowl to finish 7-6.
How did they turn that around?
“Our players throughout the season went through a natural maturation process,” Fleck said. “When you’re young, you make a lot of mistakes. That was part of the foundation year, and we were going to play a lot of young players — we knew that.
“From the Illinois game [where they lost 55-31 and fell to 1-5 in the conference] to where they ended up, they ended up being [bowl] champions at the end of the year. They beat Wisconsin, which they hadn’t done at Camp Randall in 24 years and hadn’t beat them in 15 years. To be able to do the things they did, the way they did it, showed they’re maturing and growing up. This team is starting to become a football team.”
Turning up the pressure
Now the team is being pegged by outlets such as CBS and the Sporting News as a preseason Top 25 team.
The fact that their schedule doesn’t include Michigan, Ohio State or Michigan State and has home contests with Nebraska, Penn State and Wisconsin means there will be talk of the Gophers winning the Big Ten West.
“Whether people pick us last or first, we can never control where people pick us,” Fleck said this past week. “We can control how we handle that, and what we want to do is be a very proactive team this year.”
He added that if there are going to be higher expectations on the outside, the team will have higher expectations internally as well.
Roster coming into balance
Fleck said his 2019 recruiting class, of which 12 of the 22 players are already enrolled, was more focused on defense, similar to how previous classes were focused on offense.
“We took seven offensive linemen two years ago; we took seven defensive linemen this year to really swing that pendulum back over to the defensive side,” Fleck said. “Now we’ll be able to balance that out and hopefully year in and year out now we’ll be more balanced.”
Two areas where the Gophers have gotten more balanced: quarterback and offensive line.
“We went from having one scholarship quarterback last year and the year prior only having four linemen to all of a sudden having a lot of depth and a lot of people here,” Fleck said. “Four scholarship quarterbacks, 13 scholarship offensive linemen. I think we’re on our way to be able to make that happen and create the numbers and depth that we want. But the quarterback position is really important to have competition at.”
The biggest thing for Fleck with the 2019 class is that it is going to add competition to a roster that already has had success.
Of the 44 offensive and defensive players on the Gophers’ two-deep chart for the bowl victory over Georgia Tech, 37 are back this season.
“That is the great thing about playing 59 percent of your team as freshmen,” Fleck said. “That’s the great thing about playing eight freshmen on offense and five on defense and adding to it with another class.
“I think we’re going to have a lot of young players on the field this year. We won’t be the youngest team in America, but I don’t know if our fans are going to like this or not like this, but we’re still going to be one of the youngest teams in America. Out of our 85 scholarship players, 78 percent of them are still underclassmen.”
Hurt played for Self
The Gophers men’s basketball staff continues to pursue Rochester John Marshall standout Matthew Hurt, who is ranked as a top-10 recruit in the country. But it remains unlikely that they will be able to grab him, even though his older brother, Michael, plays for the Maroon and Gold.
Kansas remains the front-runner in the quest for Hurt, and recently he took his final official visit to the Jayhawks.
One big reason Kansas is considered a near-lock for Hurt is because he already played for Jayhawks coach Bill Self with the Team USA under-18 squad last summer in Canada.
In six games under Self, Hurt averaged 14.0 points and 5.3 rebounds in 22.2 minutes per game and he shot 64.4 percent from the field and 60.0 percent from three-point range.
• Former Timberwolves coach Tom Thiobdeau was on ESPN this past week and was asked if he would have done anything differently here. “There really aren’t any regrets,” he said. “I never fooled myself when I took the job initially. It was a 29-win team and so we knew we had to make changes. When we had the opportunity to get Jimmy [Butler], you’re talking about a top-10 player in the league. We knew there were risks involved with it, but we were glad we did it.”
• One reason the Vikings might have a hard time signing their key free agents is Pro Football Focus rates Sheldon Richardson as the third-best available defensive lineman and Anthony Barr third among linebackers. PFF doesn’t have running back Latavius Murray in the top 10 among available running backs, but former Vikings star Adrian Peterson is rated No. 7.
• Vikings offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski had high praise last year for tight ends coach Todd Downing, who joined the team after spending 2017 as the Raiders offensive coordinator. Now Downing has moved on to the Titans, while the Vikings hired Brian Pariani to replace him.
• Former Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo will take over a Jaguars offense that scored only two TDs over its final five games. ESPN noted a big challenge for him is that Jacksonville has no starting quarterback, as the team is moving on from Blake Bortles.
• Former Apple Valley standout Tre Jones has averaged 10.4 points, 5.2 assists and 4.6 rebounds for No. 2 Duke in five games since returning from a shoulder injury. He had 13 points, seven assists and five rebounds in a 81-71 victory at No. 3 Virginia on Saturday night.
• It’s hard to believe that the list of the top-20 finalists for the John Wooden Award didn’t include Gophers forward Jordan Murphy. He entered Saturday second in the NCAA in double-doubles and fourth overall in rebounds per game.