If 2018 was about youth for the Gophers football team, 2019 is about “experienced” youth.
That’s how coach P.J. Fleck is defining it, at least.
As the Gophers prepare to head into spring practices Tuesday, Fleck, in a news conference Thursday, touted a team with 77 percent underclassmen (89 out of 115 on the roster). Last season the Gophers were among the youngest teams in the nation with more than 50 percent of the roster freshmen or redshirt freshmen.
While the Gophers started 2018 with three nonconference wins, they went 0-4 to start Big Ten play while also losing several key players to injury, which only exacerbated the youth issue. But the team ended stronger, winning three of its last four, including the rivalry game with Wisconsin and a bowl game.
So just because his team is young once again doesn’t mean it won’t have success, Fleck said.
“We might be youthful. I think we’re at top five most youthful team in America again,” Fleck said. “But we are way more experienced than we were last year.”
Fleck said the Gophers have more experienced underclassmen than most teams in the nation, citing Tennessee and Utah as other examples. That happens when freshmen start at quarterback, three freshman offensive linemen play in the bowl game and overall eight freshmen start on offense at the end of the year for Minnesota.
For the past month and a half, Antoine Winfield Jr. has been 100 percent healthy after having surgery on an injured foot, Fleck said. But the redshirt sophomore defensive back still might not see much action in spring ball.
“He will play in spring, but I’m probably going to be able to play a lot more young guys in there to … get them up on their reps,” Fleck said. “Especially the guys that came here in January or were redshirted last year.”
Fleck said the Gophers had a record 14 early enrollees in January.
The two injured redshirt senior running backs, though, are not as far along as Winfield, who will have full contact. Rodney Smith is a bit ahead of Shannon Brooks, but both will spend most of spring practice rehabbing from knee surgeries in the training facility. Fleck said it’s possible Smith might take part in some aspects of spring ball.
All three of those players received medical redshirts to preserve a year of eligibility, Fleck said. But the coach also said that for the first time with the Gophers he isn’t feeling pressured to rush his injured players back, since he’s more familiar with them.
Sophomore Zack Annexstad and redshirt sophomore Tanner Morgan split the season last year, and Fleck said that competition will continue into 2019.
“I don’t know if you start from scratch, but Tanner and Zack have the most experience, and they’re probably going to be the ones at the beginning to get the most reps,” Fleck said. “But it is a competition, and I’ve said that from Day 1 to both of them.”
Annexstad, who dealt with injuries much of last season, started seven games before Morgan took over the remaining six. Annexstad threw for 1,277 yards and nine touchdowns with a 51.87 completion percentage. Morgan amassed 1,401 yards and nine touchdowns with a 58.55 percentage.
Bowl success helps
Fleck pointed out that the 34-10 bowl game victory against Georgia Tech last year produced the biggest winning margin in Gophers history for a bowl game, while last year’s team was also the first to win the last game of the season and the bowl game.
“Now, that’s not going to sit there and just knock people over in excitement,” Fleck said. “But … as you keep building a culture and a program, those are the things you hang on to.”