We’ve heard the motivational talk from P.J. Fleck.
“Row the boat,” he tells his players. “Change your best.” “The ball is the program.”
And we’ve seen the exuberance of new Gophers football coach — from his high-energy practices, to his creative ways of awarding scholarships, to his nonstop selling of his program.
But there’s an underlying question about Fleck’s team ahead of Thursday’s season opener against Buffalo at TCF Bank Stadium:
Just what the heck will Gophers football look like on the field?
Glimpses so far, from spring practice through training camp, show an aggressive approach, but one tempered by inexperience at key positions and wafer-thin depth at others.
Let’s start with the offense. Fleck, a former receiver at Northern Illinois and with the San Francisco 49ers, has his hands heavily into the offense, along with offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who also serves as quarterbacks coach.
Since Fleck preached a fast tempo throughout spring practice and training camp, it’s no surprise that the Gophers scrapped the pistol formation that previous coach Tracy Claeys and coordinator Jay Johnson used in favor of a no-huddle, spread attack heavy on run-pass options that includes plays signaled from the sideline. Expect one-back sets, tight ends split out at times and quick throws to take advantage of playmakers in space.
But don’t confuse an up-tempo approach with only passing. Fleck’s Western Michigan team averaged 45 rushes and 27 passes per game last year.
If the offense begins to hum, expect some scoring, too. In Fleck’s final three seasons in Kalamazoo, his Broncos teams averaged 33.8, 36.0 and 41.6 points per game.
The move to the no-huddle spread is an adjustment for the holdover players, but Ciarrocca doesn’t see it as a hindrance.
“Football’s football,” said Ciarrocca, Fleck’s coordinator at Western Michigan the past four years. “You still have to throw, you still have to block, you still have to catch.”
Who does the throwing will be an ongoing question. Fleck declared senior Conor Rhoda and sophomore Demry Croft to be co-starters, and they will split snaps until, or if, Fleck settles on one.
Though each QB has his strengths — Fleck has praised Rhoda for his decisiveness and Croft for his athletic ability — the playbook will be universal. “This is not two quarterbacks with two separate systems,” Fleck said.
Rhoda has one career start and Croft has none, but they have the luxury of a stacked backfield upon which to rely. Both Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks each have led the Gophers in rushing for a season, and they have been impressive in camp.
“They’re really the heartbeat of this football team,” Fleck said. “We love to run the football.’
That 1-2 punch is similar to what Fleck had last year in Jarvion Franklin (1,353 rushing yards) and Jamauri Bogan (923) on the way to a Mid-American Conference title and Cotton Bowl appearance.
Zach Terrell, Fleck’s starting quarterback for Western Michigan from midway into his freshman year through the 2016 season, expects the Gophers to use a balanced approach.
“The run sets up the pass and the pass sets up the run, and nobody understands that better than Coach Fleck and Coach Ciarrocca,” said Terrell, who passed for 34 touchdowns with only four interceptions last year.
And don’t forget about Smith and Brooks catching passes out of the backfield. Franklin had 56 catches for 635 yards over the past three seasons for WMU.
“They’re two of the best backs in the Big Ten,” Gophers center Jared Weyler said. “As an offensive line, we know we just need to get them in a one-on-one situation. If we get that to happen, we know we’re gonna win a lot of those matchups.”
That offensive line has been a concern in camp because of injuries to tackles Garrison Wright, who hadn’t worked in live drills during the six practices open to the media, and Donnell Greene, who was limited a couple of days for precautionary reasons. That forced promising true freshman Blaise Andries to work with the first team.
“He’s incredibly smart and he is stronger than the normal freshman,” Fleck said. “We’re gonna have to accelerate his learning because we’re going to possibly need him.”
Catching those passes
Under Claeys and Johnson last year, the Gophers relied heavily on Drew Wolitarsky, whose 66 receptions led all other wide receivers by 48. With Fleck and Ciarrocca calling the plays, expect more balance among the wideouts.
Sophomore Tyler Johnson and true freshman Demetrius Douglas have been most impressive in camp, while Fleck continues to implore Rashad Still to become the go-to receiver that his 6-5, 214-pound frame suggests he can be. “We’re putting a lot on his plate,” Fleck said of Still, “because if you’re gonna be The Dude, you have to handle a lot on your plate.”
An interesting subplot will be just how Fleck and Ciarrocca use their tight ends. The Gophers have a pair — Brandon Lingen, a 2015 honorable mention All-Big Ten selection, and 6-10 Nate Wozniak — as options. But Western Michigan’s offense didn’t throw to the tight end much. The Broncos’ leading receiver among tight ends had nine catches in 2016 and four in 2015.
Terrell said that had more to do with the Broncos’ personnel. “If the tight end is a great pass-catcher, he’ll use him,” he said.
Once the offense becomes settled, don’t expect Fleck to play things close to the vest. Last year, Western Michigan was 15-for-17 on fourth-down conversions, the second-best percentage in FBS. In their season-opening upset of Northwestern, the Broncos went 4-for-4 on fourth down.
“He is very aggressive, but it also takes a lot of trust for him to be aggressive,” Terrell said. “If he trusts them, he’s gonna go for it. He is not scared at all. He plays to win. He does not play to not lose.”
Variety on defense
While the offense and quarterback battle get the lion’s share of the attention, the defense has experienced an overhaul, too.
Robb Smith, who spent the past three seasons as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator, has traditionally used a 4-3 alignment (four down linemen, three linebackers) but is taking advantage of Minnesota’s linebacker talent to mix in a 3-4 and other variations.
“Our personnel is an advantage for us,” Smith said. “We’re going to try to get the best matchups on the field. We’re gonna have 11 guys who match up best against their 11, based on down and distance, based on where they are on the field.”
Up front, the Gophers moved sophomore linebacker Carter Coughlin to defensive end to fill a need. He’ll join Winston DeLattiboudere at the flanks, while burly senior tackle Steven Richardson plugs the middle, along with a rotation of Andrew Stelter, Merrick Jackson and Gary Moore.
Outside linebacker Blake Cashman supplies pass-rushing help, while inside Smith raves about senior Jonathan Celestin, who wears the team’s “Thumper” label. “The guy who sets the tone for us defensively is Jon Celestin,” Smith said. “He’s solid; you know what you get every day.”
We might even see as many as six linebackers/ends in certain situations, Fleck indicated. With depth in the form of Cody Poock, Thomas Barber, Kamal Martin, Tay’ion Devers and Julian Huff, the Gophers have options.
Depth concerns in secondary
The secondary, already needing to replace NFL-bound Jalen Myrick and Damarius Travis and the expelled Kiante Hardin, was stretched thin during training camp when Antoine Winfield Jr. suffered a hamstring injury and Antonio Shenault was held out for precautionary reasons. In addition, cornerback Coney Durr tore an ACL in the Holiday Bowl and is working his way back to full speed.
Those factors prompted Fleck to move true freshman quarterback Rey Estes to cornerback, and he has an outside chance to start. “Does that tell you how deep we are in the secondary?” Fleck asked.
Smith, who authored a top 10 defense at Arkansas in 2014, has the task of finding the right balance given the limitations. He sees the challenge coming down to the basics of the sport.
“We just gotta keep tackling,” Smith said. “A football play ends two ways: they score or we end up tackling them.”
Come Thursday, we’ll finally see how these new Gophers look when doing just that on both sides of the ball.