The Gophers open spring football practice Tuesday in a unique position for a school that hasn't won even a share of the Big Ten title since 1967: They will be one of the favorites to represent the Big Ten West in the conference championship in Indianapolis on Dec. 7.

Coach P.J. Fleck is bringing back 37 of 44 players from the Gophers' two-deep chart from the 34-10 victory over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.

On top of that, running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks and defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. are working their way back from injuries and are going to get major playing time on a squad that grew by leaps and bounds at the end of the 2018 season.

"Our entire offseason has been designated to putting our players in high-pressure situations on the field, off the field and having them perform through that and having them know what that feels like," Fleck said. "This is what we've wanted to do with this program — not only this year but into the future. Raise the level of expectations, and that is just part of the natural growth throughout cultural sustainability."

Fleck said that even though the team will be one of the youngest in the Big Ten, the players are no longer inexperienced.

"There is always going to be higher expectations [after a successful season]," he said. "That is the nature of our profession. That is the nature of sports."

Peaks, valleys in 2018

Does he think this can be his best team in four seasons at Minnesota?

"It can be whatever team it wants to be. It can be as good as we want to be," Fleck said. "It's one of those things that we want to be better today than we were yesterday and better tomorrow than we were today. We have to keep a one-day mind-set, and that is all we're going to continue to do."

Fleck said 78 percent of the roster will be underclassmen, but that doesn't mean they aren't ready to challenge for a Big Ten title.

"I'm excited about the group. I am excited about their youth and what they've done last year," he said. "But last year is its own entity. We lost some really tough games, but we played some really tough opponents. But they know what it's like to be on top of the mountain and they know what it's like to be on the bottom. They have experienced all spectrums from one side to the other, but that only makes you better if you grasp it and you understand it and you grow from it. That's what I know our team will do."

New staff is ready

These will be the first real practices for a number of Fleck's new hires.

Jim Panagos will be the defensive line coach. He came from Temple and has over 25 years of coaching experience.

Rod Chance was a defensive analyst with Oregon last season and will be the new cornerbacks coach.

Joe Harasymiak joined the team from Maine, where he had been head coach since 2016. He will be the defensive backs/safeties coach.

On top of that, Joe Rossi had the interim tag removed and will be the full-time defensive coordinator.

Fleck said he's always happy to have coaches leave for better positions, but that doesn't mean he won't try to improve the coaching staff in any way possible.

"When somebody leaves you, always, as a head coach, want to do your best to upgrade that position with no disrespect to anybody," Fleck said. "I think we have done that at every position we have, and how we've done it. We've broken up the secondary and have a corner coach and a safety coach. Jim Panagos has taken over our defensive line and he's going to do our whole defensive line. I think that is really going to help us."

Finding key replacements

Yes, the Gophers are bringing back a lot of players, but they also will have some big holes to fill.

Offensive linemen Donnell Greene and Jared Weyler are gone, as are star defensive players such as Jacob and Julian Huff, Blake Cashman and Antonio Shenault.

"Really good players [graduated]," Fleck said. "You're not able to just replace them, but you have to be able to find guys [who do] a more than or equal job to what they did. You have to find those guys who do that."

One big question is how the team replaces Emmit Carpenter, the best kicker in program history with a field-goal conversion rate of 79.1 percent for his career.

"Hard to replace," he said. "The kicking game, we're going to have a young guy in here, hopefully a transfer as well, some guys in the program. That's going to be an open kicking competition as well."

Fleck said when he looks at a schedule that doesn't feature Michigan, Michigan State or Ohio State and has Wisconsin and Penn State at home, he doesn't spend much time dwelling on the big picture.

"We know we play in one of the hardest, if not the hardest, league in the country," the 38-year-old said. "Our focus will be getting better today. Once we get closer to the season [opener], our whole focus is going to be on South Dakota State."


• If the Vikings lose linebacker Anthony Barr and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, ESPN analyst Todd McShay expects them to target Houston Cougars defensive tackle Ed Oliver with the No. 18 pick in the first round. "You get a player who has, potentially, top-10 ability and he'd fall because of some of his question marks and just because of how deep the class is," McShay said.

• The headline from Sports Illustrated read, "Anthony Barr's versatility will help him fit in with nearly any defense."

• Former Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer, who went to the Browns, was quoted as saying he didn't want to lose Cordarrelle Patterson. And now if the Vikings want Patterson back, he is available as a free agent from the Patriots.

• Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman on scouting players for 2019: "The owners meetings at the end of March, I am going to stay out there and do Arizona, Arizona State, Utah, Utah State pro days and then San Diego is playing Salt Lake City in the AAF [Alliance of American Football], so I'm going to stay out there and go see one of those games."

• U.S. Bank Stadium has made a pitch to host the Big Ten championship game in football. The conference is scheduled to hold the game at Indianapolis' Lucas Oil Stadium through 2021.

• Twins Chief Baseball Officer Derek Falvey on the Phillies signing Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million contract: "A great player and certainly a significant contract. I'm sure the Phillies and Andy MacPhail and Matt Klentak [Philadelphia's president of baseball operations and GM, respectively] and the group certainly have a long-term plan there in mind. I feel good for them and the Phillies."

• MacPhail is not the only former Twins general manager with the Phillies. Terry Ryan works for them as a special assignments scout.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. •