Mike Sanford Jr.’s main takeaway from his first game as Gophers offensive coordinator: lessons learned.
His first time calling plays for his new team led to a 49-24 loss to Michigan this past Saturday, a game in which the Gophers opened with a defensive stop, a blocked punt and subsequent touchdown.
But the performance spiraled downward from there, making for a lackluster debut for the former Utah State OC and Western Kentucky head coach.
“It was really good for us to go through it for the first time,” Sanford said. “There really wasn’t multiple spring [practices or] scrimmage situations. We did as much as we could. … But clearly, a different perspective when you’re doing it against Michigan in the opening game.”
Sanford said Wednesday he felt there were limited communication issues among himself, co-offensive coordinator Matt Simon and quarterback Tanner Morgan. The trio will continue to develop their relationship, and that development actually accelerated during the shared challenge of facing a stout Michigan defense that allowed the Gophers just 197 passing yards and 129 rushing yards.
A big focus before the Gophers head to Maryland on Friday night will be in clarifying the gray areas for Morgan when it comes to his reads and progressions. Part of what will help that is giving him more time, which the hobbled offensive line struggled to do against Michigan, giving up five sacks.
Morgan had great chemistry with former OC and quarterbacks coach Kirk Ciarrocca, now at Penn State. Last year’s offense averaged 432 yards per game in an 11-2 season. But Morgan said he thinks Sanford is on his way to similar success.
“Coach was able to kind of create his pattern or his flow, kind of feeling that out,” Morgan said. “Coach did a great job of calling plays, and we just have to execute better as players, and of course that starts with me. But it felt really good. I’m happy with him, obviously, and I’m glad that he’s here.”
Sanford, though, has a couple of issues to eradicate. One is cleaning up penalties, such as the false start call on first-and-goal at the 2-yard-line, which left the Gophers settling for a field goal when trailing by seven. Another is potentially diversifying the receiver targets beyond playmaker Rashod Bateman, involving Chris Autman-Bell and the tight ends even more.
Part of Sanford’s plan that worked well, though, was his two-back system of Mohamed Ibrahim and Treyson Potts. Sanford and the coaching staff devised that plan when Bateman was briefly opted out of the season. Sanford identified the two running backs as some of the more “athletic, tough-minded” players on the team.
“I loved that,” Sanford said. “ … We spent a week really making sure that we have a very complete, thorough, two-back package to be able to utilize, and it was really nice to see it work.
“It was new, it was an evolution of the offense. That’s what we’re going to continue to do as we evolve offensively, is we’ve got to be able to execute to the best of what we have from a personnel perspective. And in a year of COVID, and a lot of roster changes from week to week, you’ve got to be ready to adapt.”
Sanford will just work to steadily build upon his offense throughout the year.
“We did everything we could to be able to adjust on the fly,” he said.