When your starting quarterback has not thrown a pass in major college football … you don't cancel the spring game.
When your wide receiver corps returns only one player with more than 20 receptions last season … you don't cancel the spring game.
When your defense loses a handful of starters to graduation, including its heart-and-soul leader … you don't cancel the spring game.
"Canceling the spring game," coach P.J. Fleck said Wednesday, "was not an option."
So, instead of eliminating a game that was set for noon Saturday — with a forecast of snow, freezing rain, a high temperature of 34 and wind gusts up to 40 mph — the Gophers moved their spring game to 6 p.m. Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium. Thursday's high temperature is expected to be 50, with a low of 37 and the chance of rain increasing that night. The game will feature a Team Maroon vs. Team Gold format, and Fleck values the experience.
"We have to give them that type of game situation the best we possibly can," Fleck said. "The best way was moving our spring game to Thursday, under the lights, beautiful weather. … It's a win-win for everybody."
Because of weather concerns including thunderstorms, Wisconsin canceled its Friday spring game and Michigan axed its Saturday game. Northwestern was taking a wait-and-see approach for Saturday, but coach Pat Fitzgerald didn't seem overly concerned if he had to cancel the game. "I'm not going to change our schedule just to sell a hot dog or two," he said.
The situation is different for Fleck, whose team is coming off a 5-7 season that included a 2-7 mark in the Big Ten. Moving the game, rather than canceling it, gives him a better chance to evaluate.
At no position is that more important than quarterback. Redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan, junior college transfer and sophomore Vic Viramontes and true freshman Zack Annexstad are competing for the job. Morgan has taken most of the reps as the No. 1 QB during two practices that were open to the public, with Viramontes and Annexstad working with the second team.
Fleck said that Annexstad has been particularly impressive. "He's had one of the best springs out of anybody," Fleck said on KFXN-FM of the early enrollee this semester.
Last year, the Gophers' starting QB duo of Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft combined for 126.1 passing yards per game, which ranked 122nd nationally. Getting better play is paramount.
"We have to upgrade quarterback. Period," Fleck said.
To hasten that upgrade, the Gophers could use more than one threat at wide receiver. Tyler Johnson, a junior, led Minnesota with 35 receptions for 677 yards and seven touchdowns before missing the final two games because of a broken hand. This spring, the former Minneapolis North standout is trying to refine his game.
"I'm working on my break points, working on separating from my defender," he said. "I come out every day with that mind-set knowing I've got to get better."
A pair of redshirt freshmen, Demetrius Douglas and Chris Autman-Bell, impressed during last fall's camp but were soon lost for the season to injuries. "They're out there making plays every day," Johnson said. "Chris Autman-Bell, Demetrius Douglas — they're playing their butts off."
At running back, the Gophers have workhorse Rodney Smith back, though he might see limited action Thursday. They'll need to develop a strong No. 2 option, because Shannon Brooks will miss the season because of a leg injury.
"We're building depth, for sure," running backs coach Kenni Burns said. "I've been really impressed with Mohamed [Ibrahim, a redshirt freshman]. He's grown a lot in a short period of time."
On defense, the loss of linebacker Jonathan Celestin is big, but junior Thomas Barber, who's been limited to noncontact drills this spring because of offseason surgery, is poised to fill that leadership role. And the return of defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. from a season-ending hamstring injury gives the Gophers a weapon they missed after Week 4 last year.
"We're going to play him at cornerback this year, safety and you might even see him come off the end at a rush end position," Fleck said. "He's a heck of an asset to have on your football team because he's so versatile, so smart, so athletic. We've just got to get him on the field and keep him on the field this year."
Winfield is itching for some game action, and at least a spring version will come Thursday: "I cannot wait."
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