As the Gophers prepare to start spring football next week, coach P.J. Fleck said the coaches know there will be some rebuilding, even as they carry the momentum from one of the best seasons in program history — an 11-2 finish, capped by a 31-24 victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
“We might even get a little younger on defense. As we have gotten older on offense, now we’re coming back to be able to build that defense,” Fleck said. “We may be a little younger, a little more inexperienced than we were last year. But as a whole, we have to find a way to be better.”
The club lost 15 players to graduation last year, nine on defense.
“That’s where we’re going to need a lot of guys to fill in depth,” Fleck said. “The Carter Coughlins are not here anymore, the Kamal Martins and Blake Cashmans and Antoine Winfields are gone, Thomas Barber is gone,” Fleck said. “Who are going to be the guys that fill in for those roles? A guy like [junior linebacker] Mariano Sori-Marin, who played last year, is going to have a huge role in what we’re going to do. [Redshirt sophomore linebacker] Braelen Oliver, who played a lot last year, is going to have a huge role for us as we continue to go this year. He has matured and stepped up.
“Then guys in the secondary, everyone knows about [junior] Jordan Howden, but now all of a sudden you have [sophomore] Tyler Nubin. We’re going to bring in some other freshman, we’re bringing in three safeties. Those guys are going to be able to help us.”
Big playmakers gone
The offense will have some big gaps to fill as well. The club lost some outstanding skill players, with wide receiver Tyler Johnson and running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks all graduating.
Fleck said he knows redshirt junior running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who has rushed for 1,764 yards and 16 touchdowns over the past two seasons, will be counted on, but other backs also are ready for an opportunity.
“Offensively we have a lot of guys coming back, but guys like [running backs] Cam Wiley and Bryce Williams, who were redshirted last year, then Jason Williamson,” Fleck said. “A lot of people forgot about Jason Williamson, a kid from Owatonna. When you look at what he’s going to do as a redshirt freshman, he is a big, strong, physical back.”
The Gophers’ 2020 recruiting class featured 24 players and ranked 38th in the country (ninth in the Big Ten), according to 247Sports.com. But Fleck said there is no timetable on when those players will contribute on the field.
“We’ll find out. We have to get through spring ball first to see if these guys will help us,” he said. “They just got here a few months ago, they’re adapting to new life in terms of being able to adapt to college life and college football and all the expectations we have for them. But they’re doing a good job. We’ll find out more [about] who is going to be able to help us once we get through spring ball.”
Morgan ready at QB
One area where the Gophers don’t have to worry is at quarterback where they return redshirt junior Tanner Morgan, who ranked fourth in college football last year in passing efficiency — trailing only LSU’s Joe Burrow, Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts and Ohio State’s Justin Fields.
Fleck said the quarterback room has become one of the team’s strongest points, and that new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford Jr. will have a big impact on that group.
“When you look at all of our quarterbacks — whether that’s Jacob [Clark], whether that’s Cole [Kramer], whether that’s Zack [Annexstad], whether that’s Tanner — they’re all very smart, they’re all hard workers, they all love to compete with each other and they’re all exceptional leaders,” Fleck said. “When you have room like that — that controls the football game, as the quarterback position does — you have a chance.”
What does he think about his new coordinator, who spent last season at Utah State and was also head coach at Western Kentucky for two seasons (2017-18)?
“Our system will for the most part be the same, but when you look at what Mike Samford does, he brings this technical edge, this true technical footwork of throwing from the foundation. He played the position, has coached quarterbacks his entire career, and he has this energy level that is off the charts,” Fleck said. “All of a sudden, you plug that into our quarterback room and we have something that I think is really special.
“You can already tell our quarterbacks are feeding off his energy, his positivity, in terms of how he builds them. I don’t think our quarterbacks have worked this hard in their entire life, the last few weeks that they’ve had over January-February in our winter conditioning program. You can see them continue to develop and get better and get constantly challenged every day.”
Proud of NFL players
Losing so many good players will make Fleck’s job more difficult this season, but he said having so many players with a chance to get drafted by NFL teams is a huge positive for the Gophers program.
“Look, a lot of people use things against us of we haven’t done this or we haven’t done that, or we haven’t had an offensive lineman [drafted] in 16 years, that is all going to change very quickly,” Fleck said. “Over this year, next year, the following year, they’re never going to be able to use that against us again, as we continue to go through rebuilding and building Minnesota into a champion. So I’m really excited.”
The four players invited to the NFL combine were Johnson, Coughlin, Martin and Winfield. Fleck said those players are going to help rebuild the NFL pipeline to the Gophers.
“Those four guys at the combine … deserve everything they’re getting coming their way,” he said. “We’re very proud of them, very happy for them. Those are guys that are going to set the foundation of what we’re doing into the future as we continue to get lots of players drafted every single year that are coming through our pipeline that we recruited, developed and then put in the NFL.
“It is going to be a really exciting time over the next decade for Gopher football. You see this change of how many players are drafted, not only because of their talent but because of their culture and being NFL-ready. That is what’s really exciting.”