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Gophers coach P.J. Fleck sees need for clarity in NFL's roughing-the-passer rules

On Sunday, the Vikings and Green Bay Packers played to 29-29 tie, and one of the story lines that had fans buzzing was the controversial roughing-the-passer penalty called on Packers linebacker Clay Matthews that wiped out a late interception that could have sealed a victory for Green Bay. Matthews was flagged for landing with his body weight on Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins.

Late in the first half, Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks was called for the same infraction for his hit on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and the penalty helped set up a Green Bay field goal.

The Matthews play caught the attention of Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, who had the game on TV in the background while breaking down film and taking notes for Minnesota’s Big Ten opener at Maryland on Saturday. He'd like to see penalties called when the infraction is clear but sees confusion because officials are asked to make too many judgment calls.

“I’m always for making the game safer for everybody, no matter who it is. I think, too, though, what we are doing is making it harder, and it’s becoming more judgment calls,’’ Fleck said Monday. “It’s not like, ‘That’s [obviously] a foul.’ It’s more like, ‘Was that or wasn’t it? Was that body weight, was that not body weight?’

“You can see why the flag was thrown and you can see why people are arguing why it shouldn’t have been,’’ Fleck added. “If it’s a foul, it should be very clear, and it should be for the protection of the players. Again, I’m for keeping everybody safer, but then all of the sudden you are putting a lot more power in just the [official's] judgment. It should be very clear, no matter what, that it’s a foul.’’

Gophers host Miami (Ohio) on a hot afternoon

Good afternoon from a hot TCF Bank Stadium, where the Gophers face Miami (Ohio) at 2:30 p.m. (BTN) in their final nonconference game. Temperatures are forecast to hit 90 during the first quarter, and the National Weather Service has issued a heat advisory that runs from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m., with heat indices of 95 to 100 degrees. With these conditions, expect to see both teams dip into their depth to keep players fresh.

The Gophers are seeking a 3-0 start for the second consecutive year, and that would make P.J. Fleck the first Gophers coach since Alexander Jerrems in 1896 to start his Minnesota career 3-0 in back-to-back seaons. As has been the case in the first two games this season, the Gophers today will rely on true freshmen in key roles. I wrote about four of them – QB Zack Annexstad, WR Rashod Bateman, RB Bryce Williams and CB Terell Smith – in today’s Star Tribune.

For the story, I talked to Gophers greats Darrell Thompson and Greg Eslinger, who had tremendous success as true freshmen and went on to great careers for Minnesota. Thompson is the school’s all-time leading rusher, while Eslinger won the Outland Trophy as the nation’s best interior lineman and the Rimington Trophy as the top center in 2005. Both Thompson and Eslinger offered great insight, and there was a lot of material that didn’t make the story because of space limitations. Here are some highlights:

Thompson began his career with a bang, rushing for 205 yards and four TDs in the 1986 opener against Bowling Green.

“I was second- or third-string on the depth chart, but we were playing the wishbone, so I was pretty confident I was going to play, because you need three or four backs in the wishbone,’’ said Thompson, now the Gophers radio analyst. “I played, and the guy ahead of me fumbled and I got in and had a really, really good second half. I started after that.’’

The size and strength of college players compared to those in high school caught Thompson’s attention immediately.

“When we got in the Big Ten, it was week-in and week-out -- the power and size and strength is nothing I’d ever felt,’’ said Thompson, a prep star at Rochester John Marshall. “I don’t care if you played Eden Prairie or Blaine or Anoka, you’re not going to play against a defensive line that has four guys all over 240 or 250 pounds and some 300-pounders.’’

The mental aspect of the college game, especially the attention to detail, was an adjustment, too.

“The terminology was a lot more, and everything is broken down,’’ Thompson said. “No one ever talked to me about my footwork in high school. When I got here, it was, ‘Oh, no. Your first step’s gotta be here, and your second step here, and your third step …’ I never had someone talk to be about, here’s where I should be, you’ve gotta read the nose, gotta read the linebacker. I just kind of ran around and ran the ball.

“… They simply don’t have that level of complexity in high school,’’ he added. “They don’t have the time; you practice for two hours after school.’’

Easing Thompson’s transition were upperclassmen, such as quarterback Rickey Foggie and offensive lineman Norries Wilson. “Rickey Foggie was really good to me. He was like a big brother to me on and off the field. He was helpful. You just need a have a few of those guys. Big Norries [now the Gophers’ director of player development] -- sometimes he would just look at me in the huddle and smile or he would wink. It would settle me down.’’

Eslinger recalled finding out that he would start in the 2002 opener against Southwest Texas State by reading it in the Star Tribune the morning of the game. At 245 pounds, he considered himself too light at the time to play center. But he quickly made an impact, earning freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News.

Eslinger said the fact that fellow true freshman Mark Setterstrom was starting next to him at left guard helped in the adjustment.

“It really helped a lot to have a fellow teammate, and especially a guy who’s playing right next to you, going through the same process,’’ said Eslinger, a Bismarck, N.D., native who lives in Fargo, N.D. “I know that he and I had therapy sessions together basically, because of the trials and tribulations.’’

Eslinger credits upperclassmen Jeremiah Carter and Joe Quinn, along with coach Glen Mason and offensive line coach Gordy Shaw, for their leadership.

“They were instrumental in helping us out and grooming us. They had a fine appreciation of the situation that we were in and understood that everything wasn’t going to be perfect with us, that I was a work in progress. You make your freshman mistakes,’’ Eslinger said. “… Coach Mason had a solid offense as far being on the same page. Coach Shaw helped me figure out mentally where I should be. Quite honestly, if I didn’t know where I was, where I was supposed to go, I would literally in the middle of the game, squatting down the line, I’d look over at Mark or Joe and just ask them.’’