MINNEAPOLIS - For the first time since the April 30 Spring Game, the University of Minnesota football team opened up practice for the public and media to watch with the team's first game less than a month away.
PJ Fleck and the Gophers moved Saturday’s workout to the team’s indoor facility on campus at Athletes Village after morning thunderstorms, and the ongoing threat of more throughout the day. It didn’t deter at least a few hundred fans from getting their first look at the 2022 Gophers.
It was also the team’s first day in full pads, six days into training camp.
"I love being in the indoor, but it’s good seeing the fans and everyone that came out and supported, just loves watch us flying around, I love it," wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell said. "I love Gopher nation, I love our fans. I love everyone, so I appreciate whoever came out."
It was consistently physical in the trenches throughout Saturday’s workout, which was high in intensity and in chaos as they went from individual drills to nearly 20 team situations. It’s become a standard since PJ Fleck arrived before the 2017 season.
"It’s always fun when the fans are at practice obviously, but there wasn’t really a change from the guys in the guys from the perspective of how we we’re going to come in and get after it. Obviously the first day of full pads is something that is exciting, but our guys have brought it every day," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "It’s been really fun to compete with each other every day."
Coming off being at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis, the Gophers have high expectations for the 2022 season after finishing 9-4 last fall. That included ending the season with wins over rival Wisconsin, and West Virginia in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. Fleck was candid all offseason in saying he failed as a head coach.
Minnesota was wins over Illinois and Iowa from playing Michigan for a Big Ten title in Indianapolis. But it’s now a new season, and a new team. Fleck is 35-23 in five seasons with the Gophers, including 21-22 in Big Ten play and 3-0 in bowl games.
"Comfort is the enemy of progress so I think you’re always going to find a way to be able to raise the bar. This is a really fun team to coach. There’s a lot of skill, and that skill mixed with the talent, the grit, the grind, it’s a fun team to coach," Fleck said. "They’re committed and when you’ve got a really committed team, you can really raise the bar and they come up to it every time, That’s what they’ve done for six straight days. They’re backing up what we’ve labeled them as internally."
Here are a few highlights from Saturday’s practice, where Dylan Wright and Terell Smith stood out individually.
- The Gophers have four starters, and 181 total starts, to replace on the offensive line. Saturday’s first unit featured Martes Lewis, Michigan transfer Chuck Filiaga, John Michael Schmitz, Axel Ruschmeyer and Airentae Ersery. J.J. Guedet is working his way back from surgery, and Quinn Carroll is also competing for a starting spot. Nathan Boe also got reps.
- Minnesota’s first team defensive line featured Thomas Rush, Trill Carter, Lorenza Surgers, Kyler Baugh and Jalen Logan-Redding. Also rotating in were Logan Richter, Gage Keys, Danny Striggow and Jah Joyner.
- Running backs Mo Ibrahim and Trey Potts are healthy and look like themselves again after season-ending injuries in 2021. Both got multiple carries on Saturday, and each took contact without any issues.
- Dylan Wright had several athletic catches Saturday, and at least two worthy of a highlight reel. One was over the middle, contested through contact. The other was on the sideline, making an agile catch with one foot inbounds.
- Wide receiver Daniel Jackson did not practice after working out on Friday. His injury was not disclosed, but Fleck said it was a decision made by team trainers.
- Terell Smith was arguably the defensive star. The veteran cornerback had four pass break-ups on the day, and spent most of practice blanketing Chris Autman-Bell. Justin Walley was also impressive in pass coverage, with at least two break-ups.
"T-Time has been the best player he’s been since he’s been here. He’s been working every day since the spring, and playing against him every day, I love it," Autman-Bell said. "It’s competition, gets you better every day. He’s going to make a huge stride this year for this team."
The Gophers will have two more practices open to the public, 7:45 p.m. on Aug. 11 at Huntington Bank Stadium and 4:15 p.m. on Aug. 15 at Athletes Village. Minnesota opens the 2022 regular season at 8 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 1 against former Gophers’ coach Jerry Kill and New Mexico State at Huntington Bank Stadium.