The Gophers don’t really know what’s next.
Just two weeks ago, the football team had finished its first week of spring practices tracking toward an April 4 spring game. Coach P.J. Fleck’s mind reeled with all the ways his players needed to improve.
But now a bigger issue has supplanted his ruminations about linebacker consistency and running back depth: Will the Gophers resume spring football at all?
When the coronavirus pandemic immobilized basically all sports last week, it not only disrupted the Gophers’ spring sessions but threw the team into a sea of unknowns.
“There are so many unanswered questions right now, so many scenarios, that it’s hard to do that,” Fleck said of measuring the offseason impact. “So right now, we’re taking it one day at a time.”
The Gophers finished last year at 11-2, a season that included sellouts at TCF Bank Stadium and a New Year’s Day bowl victory. This spring could have offered a chance to build on that momentum. The spring game, for example, was a chance to hook even more potential season-ticket holders, with the opportunity to watch a team that will return nine offensive starters.
The fact the Gophers return so much experience — including Big Ten Receiver of the Year Rashod Bateman and second-team all-conference quarterback Tanner Morgan — could bode well if they have to skip the rest of spring ball.
The NCAA has canceled all sports competitions for the rest of this academic year, but the Big Ten did leave it open that teams might resume activities at some point. Fleck posited in a radio interview with KFAN this week that spring ball could resume as late as June.
While several top playmakers return, offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. is new. So no spring ball would give him less of a chance to work with his players. The defense, meanwhile, returns just four starters and needed more reps for the heirs apparent.
But the Gophers can’t do anything about the what-ifs. So Fleck has the team focused on what it can control. For the players, that’s at-home workout programs. His staff, also working from home, has a weekly schedule to stick to, including watching recruiting film, scouting future opponents and diving into studies of NFL teams or other schemes. Coaches can also dissect the bit of film they have from early spring practices.
“In times of adversity,” Fleck said, “we’re going to find ways to even continue to get better and grow. Because there will be a time when this is over, and we do go back to work, and the players do come back. We want to make sure that we pick up where we left off.”
Fleck said this is a “scary” time in which no one can really anticipate the future. But his team has put together contingency plans and is following them. And that’s the best way Fleck knows to get through this.
“We’ll be better in athletics, better in our society, better as a nation because of it, somehow, someway,” Fleck said. “… We will go back to normalcy, but it won’t be what normal was. It’ll be a new normal. It’ll be an adapted normal for us. Hopefully, for us, it’s a better normal that makes everybody safer. And we’re prepared for this now.”