Imagine you were just handed the keys to a new Corvette and were getting ready to take it on a spirited drive. Suddenly, all roads are closed and will open only sporadically over the next seven months.
That’s the situation Mike Sanford Jr., the Gophers’ new offensive co-coordinator and quarterbacks coach, has faced since the coronavirus pandemic rocked the sports world in mid-March. The team’s play-caller got to briefly test-drive that speedster early in spring practice, but when sports shut down, he didn’t get to see how that machine would perform in the spring game or the usual start of training camp.
Finally, on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium, the 21st-ranked Gophers, with Sanford behind the offensive wheel, will face No. 18 Michigan in the season opener. He’ll rev up an engine that includes the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year, one of the nation’s top returning quarterbacks and a former 1,000-yard rusher who’ll operate behind a veteran offensive line.
For the detail-oriented Sanford, the desired outcome will happen only after proper preparation.
“If we treat every single game and each practice as a game and in a gamelike mentality, then the results are going to happen on Saturday,” said Sanford, a former Western Kentucky head coach and Notre Dame offensive coordinator. “The big thing is not having any fear as in, ‘I hope we do this. I’m praying we have a great game.’ ”
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, who hired Sanford after the former Boise State quarterback spent the 2019 season as Utah State’s offensive coordinator, describes a smooth transition for Sanford, who’s working closely with offensive co-coordinator and wide receivers coach Matt Simon.
“The relationship between Matt and Mike is critical for the development of our program,” Fleck said. “ … I really like the new things we’ve put in our offense to make it fit our personnel.”
Tough act to follow
While Sanford takes control of an offense flush with such playmakers as receiver Rashod Bateman and running back Mohamed Ibrahim, he’s also filling some big shoes. Longtime Fleck confidante Kirk Ciarrocca left the Gophers in December to return to his home-state Pennsylvania, taking over as Penn State’s offensive coordinator.
Ciarrocca directed a Gophers offense that averaged 34.1 points (21st nationally) and 432 yards per game (32nd) last year. His work with quarterback Tanner Morgan, who became the starter midway through the 2018 season, helped the Gophers fashion a 15-4 record in that span.
Fleck doesn’t seem worried about the transition.
“Kirk Ciarrocca is one of the best coordinators in the country. He’s always been a close, dear friend to me,’’ Fleck said. “ … I always think change is healthy. It helps you grow, it helps you find out where you are as a coach, where you are as an offense.”
Where the Gophers are as an offense might not differ much from where they were. Sanford’s job is more to refine than retool. Bateman is a first-round NFL talent, and expect him to get the ball frequently. Ibrahim is a move-the-chains back, a key for the clock-draining, ball-control attack that has served the Gophers well.
One area you might see difference between Sanford and Ciarrocca is tight end usage. Gophers tight ends caught only 10 passes in 2016, just six in 2018. Sanford inherits an intriguing option in 6-7, 270-pound sophomore Brevyn Spann-Ford, plus veteran depth.
Sanford’s influence on the Gophers offense first and foremost will be channeled through Morgan, who set school single-season records for yards (3,253), TD passes (30) and completion percentage (. 660) in 2019. The studious Morgan is hitting it off well with his new mentor, calling him “a great addition — an elite addition — to our program.”
Morgan and Sanford used the chaos from the coronavirus pandemic to drill down on the details of the Gophers new offense.
“Through the quarantine, we were on Zoom four or five days a week for as long as the Big Ten and the NCAA would allow us to be,” Morgan said.
Sanford appreciates the example Morgan is setting.
“His preparation is that of a pro,” he said. “He’s the guy who’s demanding office space in the building right now.”
Sanford, 38, has developed a quick rapport with his players, who like his energetic ways and ability to relate to them. “He’s a young guy, and it’s good to be around another young guy,” receiver Chris Autman-Bell said. “Like Coach Fleck, he’s flying around.” Added Ibrahim: “He’s running with us, joking with us, playing with us. He’s one of us, basically.”