The Gophers are building a house.
Not literally. This is another P.J. Fleck metaphor. But the imagery does explain where the Gophers stand heading into the third spring game of Fleck’s tenure on Saturday.
“Year 1: the dig. Year 2: a foundation,” Fleck said, gesturing with his hands to outline every step. “Don’t see anything out on the surface, and all of a sudden you start to see this in Year 3: this framework of the house being built that holds the pressure of the house.”
That pressure represents the expectations around the program. In Fleck’s first year back in 2017, the team went 5-7 while still familiarizing itself with a new coach and new playing style. Last year the Gophers finished 7-6, winning four of the last six games, including their first victory over Wisconsin since 2003, despite a freshman-heavy team.
While the team still sports many underclassmen in prominent roles for this upcoming season, there’s more experience. But now opponents also know the Gophers are a team on the rise, just like their figurative house.
“We’re not going to shock anybody or surprise anybody at all,” Fleck said. “That’s the nature of the business as you continue to grow through programs.”
How the Gophers withstand that stress goes back to the metaphor. To hold everything in place, Fleck said, pressure has to tightly press together “every individual 2-by-4.” So Fleck has worked to create his own pressure in the offseason so the 2-by-4s — wait, the players — learn to handle games, injuries and more as a unit.
Antoine Winfield Jr. had one of those injuries last year. And while his left foot is full strength for spring practices, Fleck will continue to limit his reps in the spring game as a precaution.
“There’s definitely a solid foundation, I believe, just by what we’ve been through,” Winfield said. “A coach that’s been here for a couple years, and we’re used to the culture and everything. So I feel like the foundation is set for the season.”
This spring game will have a slightly different feel, with this week’s snow forcing the Gophers to move it from TCF Bank Stadium to their indoor practice facility in the Athletes Village. The game is no longer open to the public, but Big Ten Network will stream the game live online and show it on tape delay at 3 p.m.
Besides Winfield, some other players recovering from injuries, such as redshirt senior running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, will likely sit out the entire game. And many of last season’s starters or other veterans will make just a few appearances to leave room for the younger players to show their potential.
“I’m just hoping that it’s super, super high energy,” senior defensive lineman Carter Coughlin said. “I hope everybody treats it like a football game. The reality is, some of the older guys are going to probably only get about three series. … But I promise you, the three series, four series, whatever it is that I’m in, I’m going to be flying around.”
The biggest point of intrigue for the game is the quarterback battle between sophomore Zack Annexstad and redshirt sophomore Tanner Morgan.
The two split time last season, with Morgan taking over for injured Annexstad, and Fleck has been vague about his starter plans, simply saying it’s a competition for the spot. The spring game could be a potential evaluation point.
Senior wide receiver Tyler Johnson said these spring sessions have felt different simply because the team powered through installing its offense and defense. That was only possible, Johnson said, because of the prior knowledge built up throughout Fleck’s past seasons.
Senior linebacker Thomas Barber said he wouldn’t say spring ball was easier this time around, but it has been smoother.
The goal for this spring was for it to be productive and smart, according to Fleck. And with that accomplished, now he just wants his players to have some fun.
His spring game format makes that fairly easy, as the coaching staff splits to lead two teams. Team captains get to draft their teammates with help from head-coaches-for-a-day Kirk Ciarrocca and Joseph Rossi, who normally serve as offensive and defensive coordinator, respectively.
For seniors, it’s a chance to revel in their last spring game. For the 14 early enrollees, it’s something new entirely. And for the coaches, it will be one of the last times they see their players all together until training camp in August.
“We have 12 regular-season games, and I think this is the 13th, and it’s the first one,” Fleck said. “It’s the ability to really go out there and really kind of let loose.”
And for just this one moment, the pressure eases a bit.
“You know we’re going to win,” Fleck said.