P.J. Fleck’s first spring practices with the Gophers came at him fast, just two months after he was hired in 2017. He didn’t know what he had to work with and admittedly just tried to position these unfamiliar players for as much success as possible under a new football coach.
Last year, he brought in his first recruiting class. But while there was excitement to see the potential in March, the very young team still carried many unknowns.
Year 3 of spring ball begins Tuesday. And all those uncertainties are history for Fleck.
“We know what we’re going to be,” Fleck said. “Now I know what kind of football team we have. I know our personality. I know what we want to become. I know what we’re good at, what we’re not good at. You have a lot more information.”
Fleck’s goal this spring is to master the Gophers offense and defense. In essence, he laid the foundation in Year 1, he cemented that knowledge in Year 2 and now it’s all about perfecting.
It all culminates in the spring game April 13. But even though all of this is just rehearsal, Fleck isn’t taking this time for granted.
“It matters,” he said. “It really matters.”
Three things to watch:
The Gophers started eight freshmen on offense in last season’s Quick Lane Bowl but averaged 28.9 points per game, which ties for seventh most since 1955 for the program. The 46 touchdowns tie for fifth, the 4,935 yards are sixth, the 269 first downs are third and the 2,714 passing yards are eighth. And, by the way, the Gophers were the only team in the nation with all freshman quarterbacks.
The Gophers also scored 376 total points, 111 more than Fleck’s first season, which was the third-largest season-to-season increase since 1955.
Between Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks returning from knee injuries, as well as Mohamed Ibrahim and Bryce Williams, the Gophers are returning more than 6,500 total rushing yards and more than 50 touchdowns. And that’s not even counting Seth Green, the wide receiver who amassed 282 yards and eight scores as a wildcat quarterback last season.
Smith and Brooks aren’t recovered enough for spring ball, but there will be other draws, like the 14 new players in action for the first time. Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad will continue to battle for the quarterback job. Fleck said he’s excited to see what last year’s redshirts bring, including wide receiver Erik Gibson, who was injured in 2018 but has impressed in the drills he has done so far.
Fleck also added there aren’t any key position changes except Phillip Howard, who will stay switched from receiver to corner.
The offensive line
Fleck remembers back to his first season, when he had four healthy offensive linemen. Now he has 15.
“It’s going to be a huge competition. I can’t tell you where guys are going to play,” Fleck said. “That will all happen during spring practice. … I think we’re going to have one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten.”
Blaise Andries as tackle or guard, Conner Olson as guard or center, Curtis Dunlap Jr. as guard or tackle, nothing is decided yet. Fleck also mentioned Jason Dickson, coming off a redshirt, and true freshman JJ Guedet — who was 240 pounds when he committed but is now 305 — as possible options as well.
The coach also wants to involve the tight ends more, such as Jake Paulson, who gained 30 pounds; Brevyn Spann-Ford, coming off a redshirt; Bryce Witham, who had a good offseason; and Ko Kieft, who is also bigger.
While Fleck is in his third round of spring practices with the Gophers, many of his defensive coaches will be in year one.
Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi is no longer interim and helped Fleck hire a number of new assistants to make the defensive system his own. Jim Panagos (defensive line coach), Rod Chance (cornerbacks coach) and Joe Harasymiak (defensive backs/safeties coach) will start their on-field work Tuesday.
Fleck also broke up the secondary after observing the workload the past two seasons. With so much to do on the back end, it was a tough task for one coach, and he didn’t want to overload one guy. So he made the change.