P.J. Fleck has been Gophers football coach for more than a month now, and after a flurry of recruiting activity the team is now getting ready for spring practices, which will start in March.
“So far so good,” Fleck said. “It has been [more than] four weeks and it is all positive, it really is. I see a town and a city and a state that is thriving for championships. They want to have the result someday that they all dream of. I see a team that’s willing to do it. We have a lot of challenges ahead of us, but the great thing is we can control a lot of those challenges. We have a lot of in-house work to do, but we’re definitely doing it, and I’m very happy to be here.”
One of the biggest connections that the Gophers tried to make under the Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys regime was with in-state high school coaches, and Fleck said that remains one of his top priorities for his staff. The Gophers held an open house for any high school coach last weekend, and the 36-year-old Fleck talked about their importance and his familiarity with them.
“Oh, the high school coaches, this is one of the reasons why I took the job,” said Fleck, a former assistant under Kill at Northern Illinois. “Some of my best experiences as an assistant football coach was here in the state of Minnesota when I used to recruit the state at Northern Illinois University.”
He added that winning the in-state recruiting battle remains a top priority for the Gophers.
“There’s a lot of good football players in this state,” he said. “I was proud of our coaching staff and Coach Claeys’ coaching staff prior to me being able to hold on to a lot of the Minnesota talent. I think that is key. We want to get the Minnesota talent first and then go elsewhere. But again the talent has to be good enough to play Division I-A and in the Big Ten. But we’re going to start right here in Minnesota.”
Fleck also said that while the team is courting 2018 recruits, such as recently committed Eden Prairie defensive back Benny Sapp III, the team still has a few options for the upcoming season as well.
“We have three scholarships, three open, and you know, you’re never done recruiting,” Fleck said. “We’re still looking at some ’17 needs that we have through transfers after spring ball, but we’re already onto 2018, have a huge weekend coming up here.”
An important factor for the roster was the Feb. 3 decision by a University of Minnesota review panel to overturn the suspension of four Gophers players implicated in a sexual assault investigation. Those four — starting safety Antoine Winfield Jr., quarterback Seth Green, defensive back Antonio Shenault and running back Kobe McCrary — could all be contributors next season, as the ruling should clear the way for their return.
“It’s not set yet, I wasn’t here when the whole case was going on, I can’t talk too much because of the privacy issues with the players,” Fleck said. “But anybody who wasn’t found guilty of that, I look forward to getting together with them, talking with them and hopefully making them part of our football team.”
U has depth concerns
One of the Gophers’ big issues going into this season is their offensive line, which will be hurting for depth and experience. And Fleck also said the defensive line is going to be an issue as well.
“Very short,” he said. “We’re going to go into spring with only six offensive linemen, so it’s going to be very interesting this spring. I have gone through this before in my very first year at Western Michigan University.
“We also don’t have a redshirt freshman, a true freshman, a sophomore, we have one junior on the roster in terms of defensive tackles, so we have a defensive tackle hole as well that we have to be able to fill. The hole being filled won’t actually be here until the freshmen arrive in the summer. So we have some challenges, but we’re going to have to be creative in how we practice, but we’ll do it.”
When asked if the team could look to junior colleges to fill holes, Fleck said that isn’t his preferred method.
“You know what, I don’t know if I’m going to go the junior college route,” he said. “I love to bring the high school players in and I love to develop them from the high school level up all the way until they graduate and get them ready for life and the National Football League. Not saying we won’t, but we are going to err on the side of taking a high school player. At times will we take the junior college player, yes. But I’d prefer to take the high school player first.”
Looking forward to spring
Fleck said one of his early hopes is to turn the Gophers spring game into a much bigger deal around the state.
“We’re going to make it a huge thing … You look down at the SEC and some Big Ten schools, they actually sell out their spring game,” he said. “We have to do things to make it really important, that draw a lot of people and draw a crowd. I think when people start to realize what’s going on with Gopher football, they will start to show up. The spring game is April 15th, around noon.”
Fleck said that despite the lean offensive and defensive lines, he believes this program is ready to win.
“We can definitely win here, absolutely we can win here,” he said. “That’s why I came here.”
• The Timberwolves are 22-35 at the All-Star break. With 28 games remaining, they are 3½ games behind Denver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the NBA’s Western Conference. Last year at this time, the Wolves were 18-39 and had a much better finish to the season, going 11-14 to finish 29-53.
• The Gophers men’s basketball team lost its first three games after coach Richard Pitino replaced Dupree McBrayer with Akeem Springs in the starting lineup, but it is 4-0 since. McBrayer scored 14 points in that first game off the bench against Wisconsin but hasn’t reached double figures since, but he is still averaging 10.3 points per game this season. Springs’ average sits at 10.0 points per game, giving the Gophers five players averaging double digits in scoring.
• Pro Football Focus had a glowing report on Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow, saying that they graded the former Chanhassen standout as the best center in college football last year. “He could help some NFL teams next year if he was eligible to enter the NFL draft,” they wrote. Ragnow will return for his senior season.
• Oddsmakers don’t have much hope for the Twins, who are 150-1 long shots to win the World Series, according to Bovada. Their over/under regular season win total has been set at 70.5.
• Jake Guentzel, son of Gophers men’s hockey assistant coach Mike, has two goals and two assists this month for the Pittsburgh Penguins, giving him six goals and five assists in 20 NHL games.
• Bemidji State men’s hockey coach Tom Serratore recently saw his team win its first MacNaughton Cup as WCHA regular-season champion. There’s a good chance Serratore will be up for National Coach of the Year when all is said and done.
• ESPN.com’s Bill Barnwell noted that one of the big surprises of the Vikings offseason is that they have failed to sign tight end Rhett Ellison or punter Jeff Locke to long-term deals.
Sid Hartman can be heard Monday and Friday on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org