Turning around last year's 3-4 Gophers football team began in earnest Thursday for coach P.J. Fleck with the start of full spring practices.
Every Gophers player is expected to return except receiver Rashod Bateman and cornerback Benjamin St. Juste, according to Fleck, giving him one of the most experienced rosters of his Minnesota tenure. But pinpointing which levers to pull as head coach isn't any easier after a uniquely challenging 2020 season.
"It's hard to know exactly where that team was," Fleck said, "and where this team is going to be. I mean, we lost two starters. They're both going to be high draft picks. … Everybody [else] is back. Not only that, we added a lot of people."
The Gophers will field an unusually crowded spring roster of 95 scholarship players, according to Fleck, which is up from 60 to 65 players in a typical spring and gives coaches plenty to evaluate into the summer. The team planned lighter practices for Thursday and Friday ahead of the first full session Monday. The Gophers have yet to announce a date for their spring game.
"No job will be won in the spring, I will say that," Fleck said. "We've had competition we haven't had in years at every position. That's what makes this spring so unique and different."
While Bateman can showcase his speed in front of NFL teams at the Gophers' April 1 pro day, Fleck will be sorting through the Gophers' rarely unproven depth chart at receiver. The cupboard isn't as stocked after the consecutive departures of Bateman and Tyler Johnson for the NFL, which have opened lanes for others to make their own names.
"Where six of my eight years being a head coach, it's been my most experienced [position]," Fleck said. "This one is going to be a little bit different. I said [to receivers coach Matt] 'Simon, we got our work cut out for us this year. It's going to be fun. We got to earn it.' "
Fleck is also looking forward to competition along the defensive line, where the interior was bolstered this offseason with the addition of Clemson graduate transfer Nyles Pinckney, a former four-star recruit from Seabrook, S.C. A two-time captain at Clemson, Pinckney was invited to the East-West Shrine Game, a college all-star game for NFL evaluators, before choosing to play his final year of eligibility in Minnesota.
"What Nyles Pinckney has brought is this competition in like that," Fleck said, snapping his fingers. "He handles himself in a first-class fashion. He's a father. He's providing. He's got an agenda. He's got a mission. He came in here and he's put his head down and worked."
Beyond the record
Fleck noted that the Gophers had two one-possession losses last season (to Maryland and Wisconsin) and two one-possession wins (against Purdue and Nebraska).
"I think we did 2020 well," Fleck said. " … Don't say, 'P.J. thinks 3-4 is good.' I'm not saying that. There were so many things behind the scenes that if you don't attack head on, and you don't embrace change and empathy, sooner or later it'll catch up to you."
Fleck cited the team's HERE (Help End Racism with Education) initiative and said among the speakers who've addressed the team are civil rights activist Harry Edwards, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, the Timberwolves' Karl-Anthony Towns and ESPN's Sage Steele and Maria Taylor.