Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck said the biggest goal of spring practice, which ended Saturday with the Gophers spring game at TCF Bank Stadium, was to show the players the kind of culture the coaching staff wanted.
But Fleck also said that the coaches have started to get clearer indications of who could help them when the season starts.
“The big thing was, we’re not accomplishing certain stats or things like that right now, wins, but we are learning our culture. We are learning how we practice,” Fleck said. “We are learning each other. I think we’re taking the next step, to be honest with you. I think there’s a lot of clarity starting to form in terms of who can really help us and who can provide depth for us, as well. I think we’re finding out a lot about our team.”
When it comes to individual standouts, Fleck said he couldn’t pick a single player but instead focused on a number of players who have been surprising.
“I’ve really liked [linebacker] Jon Celestin’s leadership. I think he has turned from a really good football player into a really good leader,” Fleck said. “Both of our quarterbacks in terms of the top two guys right now with Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda, those guys are doing a tremendous job of picking up the offense. The other quarterbacks, Seth Green and Tanner Morgan, they’re coming into their own, too, and developing a lot.
“I think [wide receiver] Ty Johnson is doing a tremendous job, as well. I really like the play of our linebackers. In terms of the secondary, Duke McGhee is doing a tremendous job. And I’ll tell you who I really like: this Antoine Winfield kid. I really like him as a person and really like him as a leader and his energy level and his athletic ability and what he can do on the defensive side for us. There’s a lot of guys sticking out. I’m really impressed with our specialists. I wish I could focus in on one, but I’m really proud of our group of men growing every single day and getting better than they were the day before.”
Questions of personnel
When Fleck landed his first head coaching job at Western Michigan in 2013 he was taking over a team that was 4-8 overall and would proceed to go 1-11 in Fleck’s first season.
In 2014 and 2015 the Broncos finished 8-5, and last season they went 13-1, won their conference and battled Wisconsin in a close 24-16 loss in the Cotton Bowl.
Fleck is taking over a much better situation with the Gophers, as they finished with nine victories last season, including a Holiday Bowl triumph over Washington State.
Still, Fleck talked about what it means to take over a program and how things like spring practice and the spring game this year are just the first steps in a long process.
“At Western Michigan, what we were able to create — when we first got there I don’t think we had the personnel that obviously fit our culture and fit the winning culture we wanted to have — but they were incredibly important in building that foundation; they were the foundation. Those players when we first got there were everything to us. A lot of those guys came back for the MAC Championship.
“They might not have had the numbers in terms of skill and talent around them to win championships, but they were able to sacrifice that first year and put down the foundation.”
Fleck said he believes that the Gophers have more skill than in those first years at Western Michigan, but no matter how you see it the juniors and seniors on this squad will be the starting point for his career as head coach.
“We have some skill here, we have some talent here, we’re still ciphering through those things, and that talent,” he said. “But the biggest thing for us is just sticking to the process. We’re not putting the cart before the horse. We’re doing whatever is necessary to build the foundation, to build the structure of our culture.
“Again, it’s not talking about tradition, I’m not saying we’re bad or anything like that. I’m saying we have to be able to do the culture the way the culture demands. There’s a step-by-step process to doing that, and our players are responding to that.”
Looking for full health
While the Gophers were somewhat limited in their spring game because of the number of injuries across the roster, Fleck said he thinks everyone who had to deal with surgery or major injuries in the offseason will be ready when fall camp starts.
“I think everybody is on track to be ready for training camp, which was the ultimate goal,” Fleck said. “There’s probably a few guys here or there that might have been ready to come back during this spring or even this week but we’ve decided to keep them out, just to get the next few months of rehab without being able to play football.
“We wanted to be able to sacrifice that just so we could have the bodies, because right now we need the bodies. But there’s [no point] to sacrifice the bodies right now. That’s really important.”
• Vikings owner Mark Wilf got a great honor from the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA) when he was recognized as a Visionary Leader. Wilf was honored for his philanthropic leadership at an awards banquet celebrating the agency’s 100th anniversary. Wilf has been on the JTA board of directors since 2002. … Wilf has long been a key charitable figure for the JTA, and also runs the Jewish Federations of North America, which is a national initiative that helps Holocaust survivors in need who are living in the United States.
• Talk about the value of franchises changing in the Twin Cities, Carl Pohlad paid $36 million to Calvin Griffith for the Twins franchise in 1984 and now Forbes has valued it at $1.025 billion.
• Jerry Bell, the longtime Twins executive, will have a baseball field dedicated to him near his home in North St. Paul. Jerry Bell Field will be dedicated May 6.
• New Vikings defensive end Datone Jones will see a lot of familiar faces in the Vikings locker room as he will join former UCLA teammates Eric Kendricks, Anthony Barr, Kevin McDermott and Kai Forbath.
• The Gophers wrestling team made a huge splash recently with the verbal commitment from Apple Valley star junior Gable Dan Steveson, who is a three-time state champ, and rated as the top junior wrestler in the country. Steveson also has won two high school national titles and hasn’t lost a match since eighth grade and had offers from Iowa, Penn State and Oklahoma State. Gable’s brother Bobby will be a redshirt sophomore next season for the Gophers, Bobby was a three-time high school state champion and went 14-18 last season.
• It was a great week for Brian Dutcher, the Bloomington native and son of former Gophers men’s basketball coach Jim Dutcher, who was announced as the new head coach at San Diego State following the retirement of Steve Fisher. Dutcher had been coaching with Fisher for 28 years.
Sid Hartman can be heard Monday and Friday on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org