CHICAGO – The suit coat still was plaid but dominated by a bluish-gray rather than the gold and maroon he wore a year earlier. His words came quickly but with less of the amplified fervor from 2017. And the talk of following a process still was there, though with acknowledgment that a year of experience has helped.
For the second time as Gophers coach, P.J. Fleck took his turn at the podium at Big Ten football media days. His message centered on a team that will be young but one he believes holds promise.
“We have a very youthful, very young, very inexperienced football team, which does not necessarily mean we can’t win,’’ said Fleck, whose Gophers were 5-7 overall and 2-7 in the Big Ten in his 2017 Minnesota debut. “We have a very talented football team, just incredibly young.’’
Fleck’s motto for the season is “Race to MAH-turity’’ — a nod to Ski-U-Mah — and just how quickly youth and talent develop will set the tone for Minnesota’s 2018 season. A panel of Big Ten sportswriters picked the Gophers to finish sixth in the Big Ten’s West Division, so expectations aren’t high. Patience, however, isn’t limitless in college football.
That youth will be especially apparent at quarterback, where redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan and true freshman Zack Annexstad will vie for the starting job. Though both displayed command of the offense in the spring game, they’ve yet to throw a collegiate pass.
“It comes down to how well our quarterback can play,’’ Fleck said of his team’s offense. “And I’m really excited to see, out of the two guys, who can win the team.’’
Fleck also plans to take advantage of the NCAA’s new redshirt rule, which allows players to participate in four games without losing a year of eligibility.
“A lot, a lot, most of ’em,’’ Fleck said when asked how many freshmen would play this year. “Starters, backups, reserves. … That rule change couldn’t have come at a better time for us with the position we’re in and the youth movement we’re having.’’
As for his returning players, Fleck sees a squad that’s developing and adjusting to his approach.
“We’re a lot more familiar with each other,’’ he said. “I trust these guys a lot more.’’
Through that trust, Fleck sees players claiming a higher stake in the team.
“We’re not there yet, but I’m starting to watch more and more players lead the team,’’ he said. “We’re not having to convince players anymore about the culture and the system. They know what the expectations are.’’
Junior linebacker Carter Coughlin, who represented the Gophers along with senior running back Rodney Smith and junior linebacker Thomas Barber in Chicago, agreed.
“Everybody’s bought in, and if you’re not bought in, you stick out like a sore thumb,’’ Coughlin said. “ ‘Get out if you’re not bought in.’ That’s not Coach Fleck saying that; that’s us as leaders saying that.’’
The 2017 season ended on a sour note for the Gophers, who were outscored by a combined 70-0 by Northwestern and Wisconsin. Throw in tight losses to Maryland, Purdue, Michigan State and Iowa, and Minnesota found itself a win short of bowl eligibility.
Those struggles weren’t lost on Coughlin, who took motivation from those final two blowout losses.
“It just shows that we had a long way to go. It just put it in perspective,’’ he said. “Is this how I want my last two years of my playing career to go? Absolutely not. It really motivates you to fine-tune everything and step it up a notch in offseason training. It really gave Coach Fleck validity, because he’d been saying throughout the year that, ‘This is a problem. If it doesn’t get fixed, we’re not going to like the results we get.’ ’’