TAMPA, FLA. – The Gophers face two unknowns coming out of their Outback Bowl triumph against Auburn. And coach P.J. Fleck has a say in at least one.
Fleck needs to pick a new offensive coordinator after Kirk Ciarrocca’s departure to Penn State last week. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr. needs to decide whether he’ll forgo his two remaining years of eligibility to declare for the NFL draft.
The ambiguity shouldn’t last too much longer on either front. All signs point toward Winfield turning pro, but Fleck hasn’t seemed to lose hope yet. When talking about Outback Bowl MVP Tyler Johnson, Fleck raved about Johnson’s decision to stay in school at this time a year ago.
The coordinator decision is more intriguing. Matt Simon led the Gophers offense to nearly 500 yards, including converting two of three fourth downs and three of four red-zone scoring chances in his first play-calling outing in Wednesday’s bowl victory. But his is not the only name in the mix, with others such as Texas Tech offensive coordinator David Yost emerging. Yost led Texas Tech to 11th in the FBS in total offense, averaging 474.3 yards per game.
Fleck could lose Simon, his longtime receiving coach and pass-game coordinator before stepping into the interim OC role, to an NFL job if he doesn’t promote him. Simon’s work with the receivers was crucial to the team’s 11-2 success this season, with Johnson leaving as the school’s all-time receiving leader in yards and touchdowns and sophomore Rashod Bateman already catching pro attention.
Fleck called the 31-24 victory against Auburn a big opportunity for Simon. After the game, several Gophers assistant coaches took to Twitter to praise Simon’s play-calling, including a couple of gutsy but successful fourth-down calls to throw to tight ends. Offensive line coach Brian Callahan, running backs coach Kenni Burns, tight ends coach Clay Patterson and interim quarterbacks coach Greg Harbaugh were among those to write how “proud” they were of Simon.
Fleck was more measured in his postgame comments, praising but not gushing. He said Simon “called a tremendous game” and was poised in the face of pressure.
“He called the game. I followed along with him. I called what I wanted to call when I interjected,” Fleck said. “Got to call some plays, made sure that it was based on what he wanted. I checked with him as well.”
Fleck already has said his search for a new coordinator is underway, and he conducted FaceTime and phone interviews from his hotel room in Tampa this past week as well as fielded inquiries about the position. The Gophers also have a vacancy at defensive line coach. Jim Panagos took the same job at Rutgers this month after one season with the Gophers. But Fleck might do more legwork on that position at the American Football Coaches Association convention Jan. 12-14.
While Fleck has handled these staff openings coolly, he became his most animated after the Outback Bowl when talking about Johnson and his career game against Auburn. That came to fruition only because Johnson decided to stay for his final year of eligibility instead of declare for the NFL draft.
Fleck’s voice was impassioned, his eyes shining, as he spoke of that choice, knowing All-America Winfield, as a fourth-year sophomore, is deliberating about returning for his last two seasons.
“He didn’t have to do what he did,” Fleck said of Johnson. “When you have players that do that … he sets the example for so many. It was his decision. Nobody forced him to stay. He made an educated decision, got all the paperwork, didn’t let anybody get into his head, give him bad advice. He got the right advice from the people he loves, from the people he trusts.”
Fleck said Johnson exemplifies what positives can come from making the “right” call. Johnson agreed. Playing his final year allowed him to become the first in his family to graduate from college while also raising his NFL profile.
“I got to become a better football player,” Johnson said. “I knew coming back I had a lot to work on.”
Winfield could be a second- or third-round draft pick even though he endured back-to-back season-ending injuries before this year. But if he remains with the Gophers for even one more season, he has the chance to establish a legacy like Johnson, who is the school’s all-time leading receiver now.
“This shows when young people make really smart decisions, well-thought out, educated decisions of when to come back, this is an example,” Fleck said. “… He came back, had a phenomenal year, trained hard, matured a lot. All he did was help his draft status.”
The Gophers, too. And with seven seniors graduating from the defense, plus coaching question marks, keeping Winfield would bring a little more consistency to what could be an unpredictable offseason.
Megan Ryan covers the Gophers and college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @theothermegryan E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org