MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - Make no mistake about it, PJ Fleck is excited for his Minnesota football team to start spring practice next week. The Gophers start spring ball next week and have their first practice open to the public next Friday.
But Fleck spent several minutes Thursday talking about virtually every other Gophers team and their success before even talking football. The Gophers wrestling team, led by Gable Steveson, hosts the Big Ten Championships this weekend at Williams Arena. Fleck congratulated Richard Pitino on the Gophers’ basketball team’s win over Purdue. Fleck referenced the men’s and women’s hockey teams in their conference playoffs, the new $16 million track right outside his office, the new golf facility and the plans for a new volleyball complex.
He finished with the women’s basketball and soccer team getting to travel to Europe, the volleyball team going to Asia and the swimming team doing a training trip to Hawaii.
“Just think about the life experience that those students get to experience. Somebody’s got to say yes for that all to happen, to be able to provide that experience for them,” Fleck said. “It’s really neat to work in an environment where everybody matters.”
As Fleck enters his third season with the Gophers, it appears he has Minnesota football on an upward trajectory. The Gophers are coming off a 7-6 season that featured a signature 37-15 win at Wisconsin, snapping a 14-game losing streak in the rivalry. Minnesota finished the season with a 34-10 win over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl, its largest margin of victory in a bowl game in program history.
With the Gophers winning three of their last four games to finish 2018, it’s almost easy to forget they started 0-4 in Big Ten play. Fleck reiterated Thursday he’ll have yet another young football team in 2019, with 89 of the roughly 115 players on roster being underclassmen.
The difference this year? Several of them are returning after getting playing time as freshman. Fleck had eight freshmen starters on offense by the end of the year, and it was a top-five offense in Minnesota history.
“They failed so much and eventually they learned how to be winners. They learned how to win, what it took to win and they grew up,” Fleck said.
Fleck raved about the team’s offseason strength and conditioning program, which he says has improved every year since he and his staff tracked it statistically, starting in 2013. It sounds much like the NFL Combine, with a 40-yard dash and lifting.
The Gophers should have a mix of youth and experience back for 2019. He expects both senior running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith to be at full health by the fall, but they will be limited with what they can do in spring practice. Without the duo last season, freshman Mohamed Ibrahim led the Gophers in rushing with more than 1,100 yards and nine touchdowns.
On the defensive side, cornerback Antoine Winfield Jr. is back to full health and will practice this spring.
He had a late interception that sealed a win over Fresno State, and the defense was never fully the same after he suffered a foot injury in the Big Ten opener at Maryland, a 42-13 loss.
“He is having a tremendous offseason, I can’t wait to get him back on the field. I know he’s biting at the bit, champing at the bit if you will,” Fleck said.
Who will lead the Gophers’ offense will be up to the quarterbacks. Fleck said it’s a competition, but Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad return with the most experience. Annexstad started seven games, but was limited with an ankle injury. He threw for more than 1,200 yards with nine touchdowns and seven interceptions. Morgan started the last six games and played in nine total, throwing for more than 1,400 yards and nine touchdowns.
They have other competition as well with incoming freshmen Jacob Clark and Eden Prairie native Cole Kramer.
The area where the Gophers could show the greatest improvement might be the offensive line. When Fleck first got to Minnesota three years ago, they had four healthy offensive linemen and could barely hold a Spring Game. Now the Gophers have depth with Curtis Dunlap Jr., Daniel Faalele, Conner Olson, Blaise Andries and others that will battle for starting spots. Minnesota had three freshmen and a sophomore starting in the Quick Lane Bowl.
“That’s going to be a huge competition, I can’t tell you where guys are going to play. That will all happen during spring practice,” Fleck said.
Maybe the biggest name back was one that had an option to prepare for life in the NFL. Tyler Johnson will be back for his senior season after a breakout junior year. He had six 100-yard receiving games last year, tying a single-season record and became the first Gopher to have four straight 100-yard games.
His 78 catches last season were second-most in program history in a single season, and he tied a single-season record in yards (1,169). He also set a single-season record in touchdowns (12). He became the first Gopher wide receiver to earn First Team All-Big Ten honors since Eric Decker in 2009.
Johnson is back for his senior year, with the goal of leading the Gophers to a division title.
“He made the best decision for him. I think he made the right decision. To come back and have an opportunity to do something we haven’t done here in over half a century. To be able to do things as a team, that was his first thing,” Fleck said. “I’m really excited that he made that decision because he makes our team better.”
Minnesota starts spring practice March 12, but will have four practices open to the general public. They are set for March 15, March 26, April 2 and April 13, which is the Spring Game at TCF Bank Stadium.
“I’m just excited for the whole football team in terms of who’s going to play, who’s going to surprise us,” Fleck said.