The shutdown of all sports because of the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything for coaches and players around the United States.
And while everyone is on an even playing field for the foreseeable future when it comes to college athletics, when it comes to Gophers football, coach P.J. Fleck’s squad is being put at a real disadvantage for two reasons.
One is that Fleck has shown himself to be a great developer of talent and one of the best gameplan coaches in the country, so the loss of spring practices and the spring game could really hurt the team if they in fact lose all that teaching time. Fleck has said he could see spring practice potentially beginning again as late as June, so the spring hasn’t been lost yet.
The second reason is that the Gophers are bringing in so many new coaches, and this time at the start of the year is vital to getting everyone on the same page.
The three biggest hires to the staff were Mike Sanford Jr., the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach; cornerbacks coach Paul Haynes; and defensive line coach Chad Wilt.
You have to imagine that for the Gophers staff — which is working with not only its current roster but also with players who finished up their senior seasons but are still in school, not to mention incoming freshmen who enrolled in college early — this is a very trying time.
The Gophers were supposed to have their spring game April 4 at TCF Bank Stadium, but with that no longer taking place the coaching staff has primarily been focused on recruiting calls. The NCAA has banned in-person recruiting as well.
Earlier this month, Fleck said this about the demands that were already on his incoming freshmen before the sports shutdown.
“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,” Fleck said. “But they’re doing a good job. We’ll find out more and who is going to be able to help us once we get through spring ball.”
The fact that the team has been unable to get through spring ball is going to make things more difficult once the ban on activities is lifted by the NCAA.
Last season the Gophers had to do everything in their power to get through the three-game nonconference slate undefeated.
They opened with one of the best FCS teams in the nation, sneaking by South Dakota State 28-21 at home, then needed double overtime and some miraculous plays to win at Fresno State 38-35 before rallying to beat Georgia Southern 35-32 at home on a Tyler Johnson touchdown reception.
Those three teams combined to finish 19-19 last season while the Gophers went on to a historic 11-2 campaign.
Because 2020 is a year where Big Ten West teams play four conference games at home and five on the road, the upcoming Gophers schedule features all three nonconference games at home, as part of a four-game homestand to open the season. Assuming the season is played as scheduled, the Gophers face Florida Atlantic on Sept. 3 followed by FCS member Tennessee Tech on Sept. 12. That’s followed with a Friday home game against Iowa, one of the Gophers’ earliest conference games in recent memory. After that, they go back to nonconference play and play host to Brigham Young on Sept. 26.
Those three nonconference opponents all posted .500-or-better records in 2019, with Florida Atlantic going 11-3.
And Iowa was one of the nation’s best teams at 10-3, including a gritty 23-19 victory over he Gophers in Iowa City. ESPN ran a recent preseason top 25 rankings and had the Gophers at No. 16 and the Hawkeyes at No. 20.
Fleck said recently that he is excited for this nonconference schedule.
“The two people we’re going to face out of conference at the [FBS] level, FAU had a tremendous year last year, 10-plus wins last year with coach [Lane] Kiffin [who became the coach at Mississippi in the offseason] and I know they return a lot of people, especially a really athletic and really accurate quarterback [Chris Robinson] who is very talented,” Fleck said.
“BYU is always a tough football game, and everybody always knows that, whether that’s home or away, those are grown men. A lot of those guys are older, 24, 25, 26 coming back from their [Mormon] mission and they’re ready to be able to play. They’re very physical. They have had a lot of success in the last few years and they have a really good quarterback in the [Zach] Wilson kid. We have a wonderful nonconference schedule and some intriguing matchups.”
Tight end offense
The Gophers were getting ready to experiment using more tight ends in their offensive game plan this spring, after that position was somewhat limited in 2019.
Their top receiving tight end was Jake Paulson, but he had only four receptions for 51 yards over nine games. Brevyn Spann-Ford had four receptions for 25 yards over 12 games.
But in the 31-24 Outback Bowl victory over Auburn, tight end Bryce Witham made two of the biggest receptions of the game and ended up with 12 receiving yards, a touchdown and a first down.
Fleck said the team has always wanted to feature tight ends more but needed to have the right players, saying: “You can’t shove a square peg into a round hole. If the tight ends aren’t ready to be an integral part of the offense, they probably won’t be. Last year we felt like we had a chance and then we had some guys hurt, so it wasn’t huge in what we were doing. This year it is going to be a huge part of what we’re doing. We feel like we have three really experienced tight ends that can really play the game.”
Another reason Fleck is optimistic about that group is because of what Sanford has done with tight end packages throughout his career.
“I think that is what we want to develop into, what we wanted to develop into. Year 4 at Western Michigan we used our tight ends. It’s a unique position and you have to be ready to use it,” Fleck said. “You have to be able to use it at a high level if you’re going to use it, because that means you’re taking a ball that could go to [wide receivers] Rashod Bateman or Chris Autman-Bell or Demetrius Douglas or one of your backs, and it has to be worth it. For us, it is worth it.
“We’re at this point where our tight ends have really evolved. [Tight ends coach] Clay Patterson is doing a great job of coaching them and I feel like that is the best the room has been since we’ve been here.”
Yes, this upcoming Gophers football season is one of great promise, but for now, it — like nearly everything else — is on hold.