The biggest question surrounding the Gophers football team was how coach P.J. Fleck and his staff were going to build off the momentum of last year’s 11-2 record this offseason.
Coming off the best Gophers football campaign in 50 years, they have put together the best offseason in at least that long.
Despite the NCAA shutdown of in-person recruiting, Fleck and his staff have secured 14 commitments for the Class of 2021 and have the No. 6-ranked class in the nation — trailing only Ohio State, North Carolina, Florida, Clemson and Tennessee — according to 247sports.com. That kind of early recruiting success is unprecedented at Minnesota.
In an interview via e-mail this week, Fleck said he gives a lot of credit to Gerrit Chernoff, the Gophers general manager who was hired in 2017 to oversee off-field programs for the team.
“We talk about not letting the circumstance dictate our behavior and our recruiting staff has been tremendous,” Fleck said. “They have found unique ways to adapt to the situation we are in and to provide the most elite experience for potential student-athletes.
“It’s all about our culture. Our coaches are doing a great job creatively and virtually right now to find a way to be just a little bit different, find a way to be able to do more, and do it better for longer. They’re working really hard right now and the last few weeks have proven that. But we are not done yet.”
With 14 commitments, you have to imagine the Gophers will add at least 10 more recruits from high school players or college transfers.
Since Fleck’s first recruiting class in 2017, the team has brought in either 24 or 25 players in each class.
Fleck was asked if there’s going to be a lot of new wrinkles to the offense with Mike Sanford Jr. taking over as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach after former offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca left the Gophers for Penn State right before the Outback Bowl earlier this year.
“We’ll see,” Fleck said. “Our system, for the most part, will be the same. But when you look at what Coach Sanford does is he brings this technical edge, this true technical footwork, throwing from the foundation. He played quarterback. He has coached quarterbacks his entire career.
“You can already tell our quarterbacks are feeding off his energy, his positivity in terms of how he coaches. You will see us use the tight end more under Coach Sanford.”
The Gophers finished 42nd in the nation in total offense with 432 yards per game, but ranked fourth in the Big Ten. And they ranked even higher in scoring offense with 34.1 points per game, which tied for 21st in the nation and ranked third in the conference, trailing only Ohio State and Penn State.
Ibrahim ready to lead
The team has a lot of bright spots when it comes to offensive skill players, which is surprising since they lost not only wide receiver Tyler Johnson, the top receiver in school history, but also running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, who ended his career as the No. 2 rusher in program history.
Fleck said he believes the running back room is going to be strong again this season, starting with redshirt junior Mohamed Ibrahim, who put himself on the national stage after running for 140 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown in the 31-24 Outback Bowl victory over Auburn.
“I think Mohamed Ibrahim is one of the best and most productive backs in the country, and I love how he plays the game,” Fleck said. “He is positive all the time, and that is reflected in his play on the field. He had only one negative rush all last season and is so dependable. When you need a yard, he will get it for you.”
Still, Fleck knows he will need to have multiple running backs ready to go. Last season, six backs had 10 carries or more.
“I am excited about [redshirt freshmen] Cam Wiley and Trey Potts, who fans were able to see a little bit of last year. There is some real playmaking ability there,” Fleck said. “Ky Thomas, who was the high school player of the year in Kansas, enrolled in January and has tremendous potential. Bryce Williams redshirted last season after rushing for 500 yards as a true freshman, and [redshirt freshman] Jason Williamson is a bigger back who is healthy and I am excited to see him compete.
“And then there is [redshirt sophomore] Preston Jelen, who got to play a little bit last year, too. He’s capable of making things happen when he gets in there.”
Best WR in NCAA?
While the Gophers lost Johnson, they’ll bring back maybe the most talented receiver in the country in Rashod Bateman.
CBSsports.com ran an 2021 NFL mock draft this week and had Bateman going No. 18 overall. He was considered one of the best receivers in the country last season as a sophomore.
Fleck said receivers coach Matt Simon will have that group ready, even with Johnson graduating.
“I think Matt Simon is the best receivers coach in the country. What he has done here at Minnesota and at previous stops has been incredible,” Fleck said. “The proof is there. Ty and Rashod were both named All-Big Ten first team last year and that was the first time in the history of the Big Ten that one school had both first-team wide receivers. Think about that for a second. That is credit to Coach Simon and the relationship he builds with his receivers.”
Who will stand out besides Bateman?
“I do think people are going to see how impactful [redshirt junior] Chris Autman-Bell can be. He has been in that No. 3 role the past two seasons, but we have all the confidence in the world in him,” Fleck said. “He’s been extremely productive here, but sometimes was overshadowed because of Ty and Rashod. He has 56 catches for more than 800 yards and five touchdowns, and I am really excited to see his continued growth.
“[Redshirt junior] Demetrius Douglas has been extremely reliable for us as well. We don’t beat Georgia Southern last year without Demetrius Douglas. It was third-and-30 from inside our own 10-yard line and he catches back-to-back balls to keep the drive alive and we pull that game out at the end.
“And then I mentioned earlier that you may see the tight end more in the passing game. I really liked what I saw from [redshirt sophomore] Brevyn Spann-Ford in the couple of spring practices we had. He has all the tools and performed at a high level in the passing game when we called on him and he scored his first touchdown. I think he is a player who is capable of taking that next step.”