Kirk Ciarrocca gathered the Gophers offensive players last January to dissect their season. He put their statistics on a board for them to see.
He should have handed out vomit bags.
“It was horrifying,” the Gophers offensive coordinator said.
They ranked 108th nationally in scoring offense, 122nd in passing offense, 123rd in total offense.
That’s out of 130 FBS teams, meaning the Gophers had one of the worst offenses in college football last season.
Ciarrocca didn’t run from it. Or sugarcoat it. If his players didn’t already know it, those statistics confirmed it.
“I told them, we stink,” Ciarrocca said. “That’s the truth. Those are the facts. Now, what are we going to do about it?”
Here’s what: tied for 67th in scoring offense and 87th in total offense this season.
Those are pedestrian numbers on the surface, but seismic improvement based on where they started. The Gophers averaged a touchdown more per game despite playing almost the entire season without two of their best players — running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks — and a two-deep filled with freshman.
P.J. Fleck’s daily reminders about his team’s youth became a broken record, but his plan went deeper than even he originally envisioned because of injuries.
The Gophers likely will start eight freshmen on offense in Wednesday’s Quick Lane Bowl, including quarterback Tanner Morgan and three linemen.
That’s hardly ideal in the present tense, but a payoff should come as soon as next season.
If all-Big Ten receiver Tyler Johnson returns for his senior season (delaying his NFL career) and Smith and Brooks return healthy from leg injuries, the offense should make another significant jump similar to this season. A top-35 scoring offense isn’t unrealistic.
“Numbers are really hard to be able to sit there and put expectations on people,” Fleck said. “There is a natural progression you want to see in performance.”
Their struggles this season were mostly related to defense, especially in Big Ten play until Fleck fired coordinator Robb Smith. The offense was inconsistent at times, but talent upgrades at quarterback and wide receiver specifically were obvious to anyone paying attention.
Fleck and Ciarrocca know how to construct an offense and develop players to fit their scheme. Western Michigan ranked ninth nationally in scoring at 41.6 points per game their final season, 2016.
Building the Gophers offense started from scratch. Relying so heavily on inexperienced players this season yielded expected results: some good, some bad but also definable growth.
“Everybody looked shaky early in the year on offense,” Ciarrocca said. “We just weren’t consistent. It wasn’t one particular position group or particular guy. It was everybody.”
Players often show significant improvement from their first season to the second, which should bode well for the offense since so many players were asked to contribute as freshmen.
That especially holds true at quarterback, whomever wins the job. Both Zack Annexstad and Morgan showed promise, but Fleck plans to keep the competition ongoing entering the offseason. Two incoming freshmen — Jacob Clark of Texas and Cole Kramer of Eden Prairie — will join the mix, but hitting reset with a true freshman starter shouldn’t be the plan. Experience matters at every position, but none more so than at quarterback.
“No matter who you are, the first time you’re on the stage, it’s a little different than the practice field,” Ciarrocca said.
The offense should return with more firepower and versatility. The backfield features three accomplished tailbacks in Smith, Brooks and 2018 surprise Mohamed Ibrahim, who rushed for 936 yards in nine games.
Former coach Glen Mason coined the phrase “pair and a spare” in explaining his ideal backfield. The Gophers will have quantity and quality.
A receiving corps led by Johnson and Rashod Bateman gives the Gophers their deepest group of wideouts in a long time. The offensive line loses only two seniors and should be improved.
“We have plenty of talent,” Ciarrocca said.
Ciarrocca offered no predictions about how high his offense can jump in different rankings. He used statistics last offseason to drive home a point. The facts, as he calls them, don’t look horrifying anymore.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org