Arguably the most competitive Gophers position battle this fall came to an end Friday with coach P.J. Fleck naming Kent State transfer Matthew Trickett the starting kicker for next week's opener vs. Ohio State.
Fleck was committed to fixing the issues on special teams from last season. Missed kicks plagued the Gophers in 2020. He had four kickers compete for the job this month, including two graduate transfers.
"I'm not saying it's fixed," Fleck said. "This isn't just about sticking a piece of bubble gum in the hole in the boat. This is about the ability to have it sustainable over a long period of time."
Trickett, the Mid-American Conference special teams player of the year in 2019, earned the starting job over Temple transfer Will Mobley, redshirt junior Brock Walker, and sophomore Dragan Kesich.
In three college seasons, Trickett made 47 of 57 field goals (82.5%) and 94 of 95 extra ponts, including tying for the NCAA lead with 29 field goals two years ago. His career-long field goal of 49 yards was in 2018.
The Gophers haven't made a field goal longer than 40 yards in the past two seasons. COVID-19 and injuries forced the U's kickers to miss games and suffer through inconsistency, which included a missed 36-yarder to lose in overtime against Wisconsin and a failed extra point to end an overtime loss to Maryland.
"We knew last year that we were inconsistent," Fleck said. "Had a lot of amazing guys who did special things for us. There were a lot of times we made kicks that just gave us a chance to be in the football game. And then we missed some."
Fleck said Australia native Mark Crawford has shown major improvement as the team's punter from last season. Crawford averaged 37.8 yards per punt in five games as a freshman in 2020. Backup running backs Treyson Potts and Cam Wiley have rotated as the returners.
Emotional team meeting
Fleck described the Gophers this year as one of the top two "most connected" teams he's ever coached. He felt even stronger about that distinction after an emotional team meeting to end fall camp this week.
"Our players got up there and said how they felt about this particular team," Fleck said. "I never had a team talk about the team like that as individuals and players like this team did."
Fleck didn't give any details about the conversations, but quarterback Tanner Morgan revealed that he let his teammates know how grateful he was for their support after his father's death this summer.
"What I talked about was what I was most excited for was to get back in the locker room and be around the team," Morgan said. "Kind of that family aspect. That's where I truly learned and embraced what 'forget about me, I love you' really is."
Running back Mo Ibrahim said Fleck also separated the team into 12 different groups to talk to each other on more of a personal level.
"There were different things we all opened up about," Ibrahim said. "Some of the things were the hardships I had to go through just to be here. What I had to give up to be here. … Some people I never talked to, I got to understand them on a better level."
Gophers leading returning receiver Chris Autman-Bell did some running during Friday's practice, Fleck said. Bell, who suffered a lower leg injury in camp, is still day-to-day going into the Ohio State game.
"Our No. 1 thought about what we do is Chris' health," Fleck said. "He's progressing incredibly quickly. That's a credit to him and our trainers."