Gophers football holds first open practice of 2022 spring season

For the first time since winning the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in late December, University of Minnesota football fans got to the team in action on Tuesday at spring practice.

The Gophers and PJ Fleck held the first practice of the spring that was open to the public and media at the team’s indoor facility on campus. It’s the first of two practices open to the public before the April 30 Spring Game at Huntington Bank Stadium.

It was the team’s fourth practice in total, and second in full pads. The Gophers will have 14 practices before the Spring Game.

"I like the group, I like how they’re working overall, their how, their effort so it’s exciting," defensive coordinator Joe Rossi said after Tuesday’s practice. We always talk as a defense there’s a long road, there’s a long process. We’re four in, I like where we’re at but we’ve got a long way to go."

Senior defensive back Tyler Nubin said it was just fun to have the pads on and play in front of fans again.

"We love the first day of pads, especially defense. We love hitting, we love being physical and we couldn’t wait," Nubin said. "From the first time we got in here in winter workouts, we were ready for this. It’s just a culmination of all that work."

One of the more encouraging signs from Tuesday is it appears the running back group is back close to full health. Mo Ibrahim, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams were all in pads and practicing after suffering various season-ending injuries in 2021. Ibrahim and Potts did individual work.

The big questions facing the Gophers include how they will replenish depth at the line of scrimmage. Minnesota lost four starters from the offensive line. The first team Tuesday included John Michael Schmitz at center, Airentae Ersery and Martes Lewis at the tackles and Axel Ruschmeyer and Chuck Filiaga at guards.

The Gophers also lost several starters on the defensive line from last season. Tuesday’s first-team unit featured returners Trill Carter and Thomas Rush, as well as Jalen Logan-Redding and Logan Richter.

Rossi has the task of taking a defense that finished in the top 10 in scoring and total offense nationally last season, and third in rushing in the Big Ten, to the next level in 2022. But as the coaching staff consistently says, comparisons steal your joy.

 "This is a completely different defense. I sat here and answered questions about the 2020 defense not being up to standard at the beginning of the year. Now I’m on the complete opposite side of that," Rossi said. "We’re sitting here saying they did a great job, and they did and that will be a special group in my heart forever. But this is a new one, we’re not going to compare ourselves to last year. We’re going to compare ourselves to ourselves each day, just working to get better."

The defense will be led by talent at all levels, including Carter and Rush up front, Mariano Sori-Marin and Braelin Oliver at linebacker and Nubin and Jordan Howden in the secondary. Tuesday’s defensive highlight was Sori-Marin deflecting a Tanner Morgan pass, which Michael Dixon intercepted and ran back for a touchdown.

Rush is a veteran defensive leader, back for his senior season after making 32 tackles, and finishing second on the defense in 2021 with 5.5 sacks. He also had 7.5 tackles for loss.

"Being the older guy in the room and knowing what things look like, I think I can help guys understand how that works. I emphasize to the guys, everyone in the D-line room, we’re all together," Rush said. "Each guy has got to hold everyone responsible."

The Gophers’ next practice open to the public is set for Saturday, April 16, with the Spring Game two weeks later.