For Matt Simon, the chance to become Gophers wide receivers coach in January meant a chance to return close to his Farmington roots.
Simon, 31, had quietly established himself as a coach on the rise at Western Michigan, which thrived in part because of its receiver play in recent years.
“I think that Coach Simon is one of the best wide receiver coaches in the country,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “To be able to develop Corey Davis, who didn’t have any offers and had two stars, and now, he’s a top-15 pick in this year’s NFL draft, probably.”
When Simon was a wide receiver at Northern Illinois, Fleck was his position coach. Simon had 969 receiving yards in 2007 and served as a co-captain the next year before signing with the New Orleans Saints.
Simon said he was a business major at Northern Illinois with no aspirations to coach until he started working with Fleck.
“I wasn’t necessarily ever the biggest, the strongest, the fastest or anything like that, but I was willing to work, and he kind of gave me a direction,” Simon said Thursday. “I always said when my playing career was over that I wanted to be able to give back and be able to do that for other people.”
The Gophers need to replace outgoing senior Drew Wolitarsky and don’t have another receiver who made more than 18 catches this year. The leading returnees are Rashad Still, Tyler Johnson and Eric Carter.
“We’re young, and I think the biggest thing is they’re willing to work, and they’re willing to learn,” Simon said. “We have a long way to go, but at the end of the day, you see a lot of growth within them from day one to now.”
Austin Beier, a three-star offensive lineman from St. John’s Jesuit High School in Toledo, Ohio, announced on Twitter that he has committed to the Gophers.
The 6-5, 255-pound Beier also had reported offers from Northwestern, Indiana and Boston College. He gave the Gophers eight commitments for the Class of 2018 and lifted them to No. 13 nationally in the 247Sports composite rankings.
Spring game challenges
With only five healthy offensive linemen, one more injury could derail the 11-on-11 drills the Gophers have been running. They plan to scrimmage Saturday, but Fleck said it will be 40-50 plays mixed in with some individual position work.
The same discussion applies to the April 15 spring game.
“I do want some type of game feel [April 15],” Fleck said. “We might do the same thing that we do Saturday. It’s supposed to be a beautiful day. Our players are going to sign autographs on the field. It’s just going to be an incredible atmosphere. It’s just we have to do it in a little bit of a different format.”
QB battle open
Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft have been getting most of the first-team quarterback reps in practice, with Seth Green, Tanner Morgan and Neil McLaurin sprinkled in.
“They’ve got so much on their plate, I’m proud of all of them,” Fleck said. “They’re working hard, but I wouldn’t sit here and say there’s a clear starter yet. We’ve got a long way to go until I do that.”