With training camp having reached the halfway point and the Gophers football team’s season opener only 15 days way, coach P.J. Fleck knows the clock is ticking.
And as that clock ticks toward the Aug. 31 opener against Buffalo at TCF Bank Stadium, the first-year coach sees a team that’s adapting to his system, an experienced defense that’s improving and an offense that still faces a couple of major questions.
“I thought they responded very well,” Fleck said Tuesday, three days after his team went through its first major scrimmage of training camp. “… All I’ve seen is this team taking the right steps in buying in and believing.”
Getting his team to buy in and believe might be the first step for a new coach, but settling on a starting quarterback ranks highly in importance, too.
Tuesday, Fleck still wasn’t ready to declare senior Conor Rhoda or sophomore Demry Croft as the winner of the starting job. In fact, the coach hinted there might not be only one No. 1.
“If we think we’re just going to need one quarterback through this entire season, I’d be crazy to think that,” said Fleck, who previously said he would prefer one QB to seize the job. “As we go forward, I have to start looking at some options.”
In Tuesday’s open practice, Rhoda looked a bit steadier than Croft, though Fleck sees both as improving.
“It hasn’t been an easy decision to say this guy has won the job,” he said, “because they’re both playing at a high level.”
As for his timetable to name a starter, Fleck said he will “hopefully make a decision very soon” because the team is implementing its game plan for Buffalo next week.
Regardless of who starts, that QB will be operating behind an offensive line that has depth issues. Two starters from 2016 transferred, one graduated and another starter, senior tackle Garrison Wright, has been shelved by injury during training camp.
Then came Tuesday, when junior tackle Donnell Greene was held out of live drills because of precautionary reasons due to an injury. Enter Blaise Andries, the true freshman tackle from Marshall, Minn., who was moved up to the first string on the right side.
“I’m not sure what true freshman who’s 18, playing in the Big Ten, one of the most physical conferences in the country, is truly ready to take on that challenge,” Fleck said of the 6-5, 313-pounder. “But I will say we’re making him ready. He has to be ready because of our lack of depth.”
Center Jared Weyler, the leader of the line, isn’t panicking.
“We’ve taken a lot of really, really great steps the last two weeks,” the junior said, “and this week’s going to be huge for us.”
The rest of the offense has more depth. Running back is a strength with Rodney Smith, who rushed for 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns last year, and Shannon Brooks, who lead the Gophers with 709 rushing yards and had seven TDs in 2015. At receiver, there’s little experience, but sophomore Tyler Johnson and true freshman Demetrius Douglas have impressed in camp.
The Gophers defense is ahead of the offense so far, Fleck acknowledged, and much of that has to do with experience. But it hasn’t been a walkover.
“What I love at this juncture of where it stands is that it’s a boxing match,” Fleck said. “There’s a right hook by the offense, then there’s a body shot and an upper cut by the defense. It continues to go back and forth.”
Added defensive end Carter Coughlin: “We started camp and we barely had anything in, and now we have pretty much everything we need. … We’re flowing really fast. It’s really fun seeing how our defense is shaping up to be.”
Cornerback Antonio Shenault also was held out of live drills because of precautionary reasons. Fleck said Shenault should return in the next couple of days.