With another Gophers player opting out of the season Monday, coach P.J. Fleck warned more could follow before the Oct. 24 opener.
Receiver and returner Demetrius Douglas announced his decision on Twitter, writing he first decided to not play when the Big Ten canceled its season in August. While the conference reversed that call, Douglas stayed on his course.
“The events of 2020 have given us all an opportunity to reflect and reground on our purpose and priorities,” wrote Douglas, who will graduate in December. “… I prayed deeply on the right next step for me and decided that I would begin the transition to the next phase of my life’s journey.”
Douglas, who grew up in Wayzata and is the son of former Gophers and NFL receiver Omar Douglas, returned punts and kickoffs and was also the first receiver rotated in last season, often for long third- and fourth-down attempts.
Fleck said he knew of Douglas’ decision, as the two had several conversations about Douglas retiring from the game. The coach said he will particularly remember two moments: Douglas’ clutch catches on third-and-29 and the subsequent fourth down in the win against Georgia Southern, and the punt return touchdown at Wisconsin in 2018 that brought the Axe back for the first time in 14 years.
Douglas would have been the No. 3 receiver behind Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell, leaving that third slot open for players such as Seth Green and promising freshmen Douglas Emilien and Daniel Jackson.
Bateman initially opted out of the season on Aug. 4, citing concerns about playing amid the coronavirus pandemic, instead signing with an agent and focusing on the NFL draft. But he changed his mind when the Big Ten returned Sept. 16 with daily testing and earned special reinstatement from the NCAA.
Bateman didn’t say if he had counseled any of his teammates facing a similar choice to his.
“The only advice that I would give someone in this time of uncertainty … is to put your health first,” Bateman said. “And make sure that you’re OK before you make a serious decision about playing football or doing anything in life.”
Offensive lineman Curtis Dunlap Jr. also entered his name in the NCAA transfer portal Sept. 1, only to pull his name from it the next day. Fleck said Monday “there’s probably going to be a few” more players to opt out, but it’s “a small, small number.” Asked specifically about linebacker Braelen Oliver and offensive lineman Daniel Faalele, Fleck declined to comment.
Oliver, in line for a starting linebacker spot, had an injury early in spring football, and Fleck mentioned Monday the player’s health was still in question. Faalele also missed time with injuries last season, including the Outback Bowl with a left leg injury.
“I’m going to wait to be specific on who we talk about, whether opt in, opt out, to give people the proper time … so they can make the decision for themselves and not have added pressure,” Fleck said. “It’s a time where things are really sensitive. … I don’t want to put that out there and have people calling them telling them what they should or should not do at this point.”
Fleck said he is still waiting on a few more players to give their final answer, which they have less than three weeks to do before the Gophers face Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium. It appears the Gophers have not updated their online roster since spring football, since the freshman enrollees from June are still not listed. Fleck said he will release an updated roster once all players know their playing status.
“I don’t want to give you names, and all of a sudden they opt in tomorrow but I told you they opted out today,” Fleck said. “… I want them to do it for all the right reasons and the reasons that they have with their families.”