Gophers have long list to address as practice begins
MINNEAPOLIS—The Gophers begin spring football Tuesday with a long list of areas for coach P.J. Fleck to address after a 5-7 debut season at Minnesota.
A year ago, Fleck installed his fast-paced practice format during spring ball and had to be creative with an offensive line that, at times, had only four healthy players.
This year, acclimation should be limited to seven freshmen who enrolled early, and glaring depth issues should be less pressing. Most members of the 2017 freshman class were redshirted a year ago, but some of the same position battles will continue into Year 2 of Fleck's era.
"It's youthful depth, inexperienced depth at times, but you have depth," Fleck said Sunday on WCCO-AM. "So we are just going to have to do a tremendous job again of our upperclassmen ... of leading this team,"
Fans will be able to see the Gophers in action in two on-campus practices, March 27 and April 3 beginning at 4:45 p.m.. The spring game is scheduled for noon on April 14 at TCF Bank Stadium.
Here are three key storylines headed into spring practices:
A year ago, the Gophers had only a morsel of Big Ten experience at the most important position on the field, a large reason for the U's 122nd-ranked passing offense. This year, Minnesota has even less experience at quarterback even as expectations grow.
With last year's starters gone —Conor Rhoda graduated and Demry Croft transferred to Tennessee State — redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan and junior college transfer Vic Viramontes figure to be the chief competitors for the starting job. Redshirt sophomore Seth Green, of East Ridge High School, and Zack Annexstad, a freshman walk-on, have also been mentioned by Fleck as in the mix.
"It's going to be a fun battle all the way through spring, and then this is going to go into training camp as well," Fleck said on WCCO-AM. "It's not something where I will probably just name a starter after 15 spring practices. This is something that we have to be able to develop, and when we make the decision, we've got to be able to feel very confident about (it) and go from there."
Fleck waited weeks into fall camp a year ago before naming Rhoda and Croft "co-starters." They each started six games, with Croft taking over in the final six. He didn't complete more than 10 passes in any of them.
Fleck recruited Morgan when he coached Western Michigan and got him to flip to the U. Morgan impressed during freshman scrimmages last season, and with his leadership during offseason workouts.
After transferring from Cal, Viramontes was the top-rated JUCO QB in the 2017 recruiting class. The Norco, Calif., native enrolled at the U in January in order to have more time to learn offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca's system.
The Gophers lost three defensive tackles in Steven Richardson, Andrew Stelter and Merrick Jackson from 2017. Fleck mentioned interior linemen such as Gary Moore, Royal Silver and Nate Umlor — who played end as a true freshman last year — as the key reinforcements. In addition, tackle O.J. Smith, an Alabama transfer, will be an intriguing player to watch after sitting out last season.
On offense, center Jared Weyler returns after missing six games, including the final three of 2017. Donnell Green, who had offseason surgery on his knee, could be limited in spring ball but should be a mainstay at tackle next fall.
Plus, the biggest recruiting storylines (literally) from December were the signings of enormous tackle Daniel Faalele (6 feet 9, 400 pounds) and only-slightly-smaller guard Curtis Dunlap (6-5, 370). It will be interesting to see how the freshmen from the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., can acclimate and potentially contribute next fall.
Redshirt sophomore guard/center Conner Olson of Monticello, Minn., is expected to be focal point of any front five and received the most praise from Fleck on Sunday.
"(He) had one of the best offseasons of any player that we've had," Fleck said on the radio. "I really look forward to his leadership and really leading this football team, especially up front."
The receiving corps is the primary position that must improve in 2018. Leading receiver Tyler Johnson was lost to a broken hand/wrist for the final two games, and big target Rashad Still never matured, or played, throughout the season.
In the 31-0 loss to Wisconsin in the season finale, walk-on Will Reger had one reception — the only catch among the receivers.
The two most promising players are Chris Autman-Bell, who had a hand injury in fall camp a year ago and redshirted, and Demetrius Douglas, who played three games before suffering a season-ending lower body injury. That comes with the return of a healthy Johnson and the coming arrival of three freshman receivers in June, including four-star playmaker Rashod Bateman of Tift County, Ga.
On defense, the Gophers will welcome back safety Antoine Winfield Jr., whose season ended after he aggravated a hamstring injury in the Big Ten opener and missed the last eight-plus games. They will need Winfield, a freshman All-America player in 2016, to stay healthy and be a vocal leader in the back of the defense, especially with safeties Duke McGhee and Ken Handy-Holly gone from the program. Cornerback Chris Williamson, a Florida transfer, will also be a defensive back to watch.