College football season is just around the corner. The University of Minnesota football team took its turn at Big Ten media day on Tuesday.
New coach P.J. Fleck was the first coach to take the podium Tuesday morning as he’s about to start his first fall training camp with the Gophers next week. Fleck is now in charge of making Gopher football a national brand, and bringing that national audience to the Twin Cities.
Someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, it will include a Big Ten title coming to TCF Bank Stadium. But for now it’s about getting healthy, getting players ready for fall camp on Aug. 1 and having his team ready for the Aug. 31 season opener against Buffalo.
Here are four things to watch as Minnesota gets ready to start fall practices.
‘Rowing The Boat’
One of the biggest issues facing Gopher football had little to do with the actual football, and it’s why Mark Coyle hired Fleck to replace Tracy Claeys. When TCF Bank Stadium is half full and you’re hosting Iowa, one of your biggest rivals, that’s a major problem. Coyle invested, to the tune of more than $3 million per year, in a coach that has building a brand among his top priorities. Fleck wants “The Bank” full for every game, and wants to see Maroon and Gold everywhere.
Since being hired, Fleck has been all over social media promoting both the university and the football program. He’s brought his “Row the Boat” trademark to Minnesota, and he’ll be featured in an ESPNU four-part series next month. His players have bought in and are talking about being “elite” at everything they do, from making a tackle to being a model student-athlete. While developing that brand will take time, it’s already gaining steam and Fleck has yet to coach his first actual game for the Gophers.
That doesn’t happen by accident. Every message Fleck has is calculated and has a purpose. It should translate on the field once it’s fully embraced by his players.
The highlight of fall camp for Fleck and the Gophers will also likely be one of their biggest unknowns this season. The opener is a little more than a month away, and Fleck has no idea who will start at quarterback. And perhaps more unsettling is the top two candidates have extremely limited experience. It’s essentially a two-horse race between senior Conor Rhoda and redshirt sophomore Demry Croft.
Rhoda played in three games for the Gophers last year, completing eight passes for 88 yards and one touchdown. He made one start last year, a win at Maryland where the Gophers ran the ball for 229 yards and two touchdowns. Rhoda was 7-of-15 passing for 82 yards and a touchdown. He left the program in the offseason and was set to be a graduate transfer, but agreed to return to the Gophers as a fifth-year senior after a meeting with Fleck.
Croft did not play last season to preserve a redshirt year after playing in three games as a true freshman. He finished that year 7-of-17 passing for 34 yards and also had nine carries for 38 yards. He’s as much a threat to run as he is to pass, and he’s a superior athlete to Rhoda. But he lacks the collegiate playing experience. The hope is that Croft can win the quarterback competition in fall camp and develop throughout the season, and if he gets hurt, you have a senior to replace him.
The Gophers defense made huge strides last season, including allowing just 12 points to one of the top passing offenses in the nation in Washington State at the Holiday Bowl. Their biggest area of strength and returning depth for fall camp is at linebacker. Among the top linebackers returning is Cody Poock, who battled injuries last season and finished with 24 tackles in seven games. Carter Coughlin will be featured as an end speed rusher and had 25 tackles in 11 games last year. They also return sophomore Thomas Barber, junior Blake Cashman, senior Jonathan Celestin, sophomore Kamal Martin and junior Julian Huff, all who made contributions on defense this year.
They’ve got an athletic group of linebackers that should allow Fleck to mix up his defensive schemes and allow players to make plays. He’ll find out just how deep that group is over three weeks of fall practices.
Offensive Line A Question Mark
One of the biggest questions entering fall camp for the Gophers is an area where you want the most depth and security: The offensive line. Injuries and continuity, or a lack of, were an issue on the offensive line last season. Fleck had to alter the Gophers Spring Game at TCF Bank Stadium as he had only six offensive linemen healthy. The team overall had 22 offseason surgeries, more than Fleck has ever had to deal with as a head coach.
Despite a beaten up offensive line, the Gophers were still fifth in rushing in the Big Ten last year with the duo of Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith at more than 183 yards per game. But they were 12th in passing offense at about 173 yards per game. Many offensive linemen played through injuries last year. Assuming all get healthy either by or during fall camp, it’s a group that should be led by Donnell Green, Vincent Calhoun, Jared Weyler, Nick Connelly, Quinn Oseland and Garrison Wright. Conner Olson and, Sam Schlueter and even Blaise Andries could also see time. The starters will need to stay healthy, as the potential second unit for the offensive line is very young and lacks experience.
Las Vegas odd-makers have the Gophers over/under win total for 2017 at 7.5. There’s a very real possible Minnesota could get to its Oct. 28 game at Iowa 7-0. It would mean wins over Buffalo, at Oregon State, Middle Tennessee State, Maryland, at Purdue, Michigan State and Illinois. The last five are at Iowa, at Michigan, hosting Nebraska, heading to Northwestern and hosting Wisconsin.
Players will have to step up and stay healthy, but fall camp will tell us a lot about where the Gophers are at heading into the season. With a new coach in charge, it’s a highly-anticipated season that will be monitored closely by a fan base that wants to win, and wants to win ASAP.