Gophers players made guesses and took bets.
Not on what the team’s preseason ranking will be or who’s going to win various starting jobs up for grabs this offseason. But about what coach P.J. Fleck would unveil as his 2020 theme.
“You can guess all you want, but you’re never going to hit it,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said Monday. “… I don’t think anybody’s been right, to be honest with you, on our guess. But the bamboo thing, it fits perfectly.”
That’s right, this year is all about pandas’ favorite food. Or more generally, how the Gophers plan to “grow higher” after their 11-2 season, an on-field process that starts Tuesday with the opening of spring practice.
Fleck explained how bamboo can take years to reach its full height, sometimes as tall as 100 feet. The Gophers sprouted last year and now intend to keep climbing.
The offense, which returns nine of 11 starters, is a good example of how the Gophers can build on their success, such as averaging more than 34 points and 430 yards per game.
But Fleck isn’t going to just pick up where he left off, at least in terms of his lineup. He wants to foster competition within the program, so he doesn’t plan on naming starters in spring ball, instead just doling out first-team reps. That includes Morgan, who set season records for passing yards (3,253), passing touchdowns (30) and completetion percentage (66%).
“Everything has to be earned,” is how Morgan responded to Fleck giving him the first-team responsibilities but not necessarily the starting job. “So what we did last year, whether it’s individually or collectively as a team, isn’t good enough anymore. … I can get a lot better.”
Morgan’s main competition will come from Zack Annexstad, who beat him out for the No. 1 role in 2018 before a foot injury sidelined him all of 2019. Several other injury returns and delays will play out this spring, including tight end Jake Paulson and right tackle Daniel Faalele. Paulson endured leg and arm injuries last season, while Faalele missed some time because of a lower-leg injury.
Fleck said Paulson won’t be involved in spring practices beyond individual drills. Faalele will be “full go,” while other players might start off on their own and rejoin the entire team after spring break ends March 16.
Players’ endurance feeds into another motto for this upcoming season: better for longer, a contrast to last year’s “play smarter, not harder.” The Gophers had two bye weeks last season, conveniently after the nonconference season and again going into a tough November. This fall, they have just one in Week 11.
Fleck truncated his spring practice schedule accordingly, wanting to simulate that crunch of the season ahead of the April 4 spring game. Morgan said the players have trained differently with the strength staff to make sure they can physically handle a 10-game stretch without a break.
But despite challenges of internal competition or arduous schedules, Fleck wants his team to see the possibilities. And that actually fits into another long-running metaphor Fleck has constructed since he took the job in 2017, equating building the Gophers team to building a house.
With the foundation set and the framework established, it’s time to install the windows, which allows the Gophers to see everything. But those windows aren’t tinted.
“The outside world wants to peek in and see and study and know what we’re doing inside our house,” Fleck said. “… We’ve got to be ready for all of that. And we’ve got to be two steps ahead.”