MINNEAPOLIS - It was a sight for sore eyes on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium: P.J. Fleck running around the field, Tanner Morgan throwing passes downfield and individual and team sessions happening under sunny skies.
At this time last year, there was no football of any kind. The NCAA shut down spring football across the country, and the Gophers were about a week in, as the COVID-19 pandemic started to spread. There’s plenty of reason for optimism around Fleck and the Gophers. After a 3-4 season in 2020, which included a COVID-19 outbreak, the only starters Minnesota loses are Rashod Bateman and Benjamin St.-Juste.
Maybe most importantly, they’re as strong and deep as they’ve ever been on the offensive and defensive lines. Everybody returns from the offensive line, including key pieces in Daniel Fa’alele and Curtis Dunlap Jr.
On the defensive line, they’ve got Boye Mafe, Micah Dew-Treadway, M.J. Anderson, Esezi Otomewo, Rashad Cheney and De’Angelo Carter. They’ve also added talented transfers Nyles Pinckney and Val Martin. There will be plenty of competition the rest of the spring and into fall camp.
"I see experience. I see our tackling improving. I see coachable players that want to be developed. And I see a ton of competition. So I look on the defensive side and that's what I see," Fleck said.
Fleck and his players were downright giddy when asked about the Spring Game, which is slated for May 1 at TCF Bank Stadium. Up to 10,000 fans will be in attendance, after free tickets were released that comply with state COVID-19 guidelines. For the first time in over a year, there will be Gophers fans in their Maroon and Gold watching a scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium.
Fleck said like they’ve done every year, there will be a Maroon team and a Gold team, with a draft done by the players.
"I’m not sure what that will look like or what the score will be, I just want the fans back. I’m so excited they’re back. I mean 10,000 tickets in two hours, I think that just shows the hunger for Gopher fans to get back to Gopher football, Gopher sports," Fleck said. "I think that shows we want athletics back in our Twin City area, fans want to come back."
Quarterback Tanner Morgan, who is back for his third season as a starter, says the Spring Game will be a fun change of pace after the grind of spring camp.
"Spring ball is a long period, 14 practices can be a grind, and the Spring Game is an opportunity to go have fun, to play football at a high level and just have fun and play ball," Morgan said.
One guy Morgan is happy to see in the offensive huddle? Mo Ibrahim, the reigning Big Ten Running Back of the Year. Despite not playing two games last year, Ibrahim still led the Big Ten in rushing at 1,076 yards and led the league with 15 rushing touchdowns.
He was a First Team All-Big Ten pick, and set a school record averaging 153.7 yards per game. He’s back for one more season, and will run behind Fa’alele, Dunlap, Blaise Andries, John Michael Schmitz, Conner Olson and several others who got valuable playing time last season.
"This team. I couldn't pass up this opportunity just to be back with this team. It's a lot of experience coming back. I want to be a part of this. It's going to be a great year for us and that was the main reason why I came back," Ibrahim said.
We won’t see what the 2021 Gophers will look like until they open the regular season Sept. 2 against Ohio State. For now, it’s just fun to have football back and get one step closer to normalcy.