Tyler Johnson held up his thumb and pointer finger, with just a smidge of space between them.
He’s about “this close” to graduating, becoming the first of his parents and four younger siblings to earn a college diploma. And that was one of the main factors that kept him with the Gophers for his senior season instead of departing for the NFL.
“It took a while because that’s a pretty hard decision to make,” the wide receiver said Tuesday at the Athletes Village after spring practice. “… Plus, just thinking about the future here at this program, knowing that we’ve got a lot of players coming back that have played a lot of football. So could be pretty fun.”
Johnson’s monster junior season included him earning first-team All-Big Ten honors while setting single-season Gophers records for receiving yards (1,169) and touchdown catches (12). Coach P.J. Fleck made the same gesture as Johnson to show how much the Minneapolis native has to improve in his final season.
“It’s this tiny, little millimeter every day,” Fleck said. “And some people can just be like, ‘Psh, I’m good enough. I don’t need to know that. I don’t need to do that.’ And he continues to get that much better every day, which is way harder because it’s the intricate details and the small parts of all of that that are hard to do consistently.”
Johnson is also the undoubted leader of his position group as the only senior and said he keeps his example of hard work simple to follow.
“It’s pretty cool and pretty easy being a leader because you get to set the standard,” Johnson said. “And when you set the standard, you know you’ve got a lot of people that want to get there, as well.”
For the first time in his tenure, Fleck has overlapping recruiting classes.
Heading into his third season, Fleck already has six 2020 commits and three in 2021. In his first season, Fleck said he focused solely on the 2018 class, as it would be his first big class, and he felt pressure to make the right choices. In 2019, it was much the same, with maybe a bit of looking ahead at upcoming in-state recruits.
“I was told a long time ago, to win a championship, you’ve got to have back-to-back big-time recruiting classes,” Fleck said. “… And so we felt the ’18 and ’19 class was going to be that for us.”
Fleck filled those classes with possible immediate-impact players such as offensive lineman Daniel Faalele and wide receiver Rashod Bateman. The 2020 and 2021 classes, which Fleck said he looks at as one group, are aimed at filling the holes the previous two classes will leave and are also more targeted to the team’s specific needs as Fleck continues to develop the program.
“Got a long way to go until signing days in ’20 and ’21,” Fleck said. “But it’s a heck of a good start, and we’re going to be keep building on it.”
Fleck said his offensive line this season has the potential to be one of the better ones in college football, now that it won’t be a “carousel” like last season, and the line can develop some consistency. But he hasn’t quite solidified the depth chart.
“We have an idea of who the eight are going to be, and so we do everything we can to get them in the mix as much as we possibly can,” Fleck said. “Positionally, we’re still switching.”
He mentioned how Blaise Andries has played tackle and guard, as has Sam Schlueter. Conner Olson has taken reps at center and guard, while John Michael Schmitz has also worked at center.
“I really like how it’s coming together,” Fleck said.