Gophers have swagger, Winfield Jr. 'blessed' to be back

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PJ Fleck thinks there's a chance the University of Minnesota football team is turning a corner.

He’s talked at length this spring about when the metaphoric light turns on for both a team and a player. He hasn’t said what that moment is yet for the Gophers or even if it’s happened yet. If the Gophers find themselves to be an annual contender for a Big Ten championship, they can point to the end of the 2018 season as that moment.

A signature win at Wisconsin, and a dominant 34-10 win in the Quick Lane Bowl over Georgia Tech, one of the top rushing attacks in the country.

The strong finish appears to have translated into a swagger at spring practice. The music is loud, the energy is high and the scene is chaotic for a college football program, and that’s just the way Fleck likes it. They returned from Spring Break on Monday and held their second open workout Tuesday afternoon.

“I like the way our guys our working, I think that’s five really good practices put together. I love the way they’re working, that’s what I’m looking at,” Fleck said. “You can start to feel this team being a player-led team. You can start to feel the players taking ownership of each other and that’s fun.”

Spring practice has also marked the return of defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. One of the team’s best athletes and their unquestioned leader on defense, Fleck has Winfield on a “pitch count” and is limiting his plays, but he’s just happy to be back on the field.

He’s making plays, and he’s the first to tap a teammate’s helmet when they make a play. Winfield Jr. suffered a toe injury in Minnesota’s Big Ten opening loss at Maryland. The injury required surgery, ending his season. Two years ago, he tore his ACL in the non-conference against Fresno State.

“Going through that first injury, it just taught me a lot about myself. How to be calm, be patient. Everything is supposed to happen exactly the way it’s supposed to happen,” Winfield Jr. said. “It’s just a mindset. Every time I get on the field I’m just blessed to be out there, because I know what it’s like to be out.”

Fleck is also encouraged by the fact that he says his best players are becoming the team’s hardest workers. He referenced running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who shouldered the load in the run game after Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith both went down with season-ending injuries last year.

Ibrahim finished his freshman season as the Gophers’ leading rusher with 1,176 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games. He averaged 116 yards per game.

“I think the biggest part is just changing your best. That’s all you actually can do. You’re either growing or you’re dying, and we’re definitely trying to grow,” Ibrahim said. “I’m trying to compete with Rodney and Shannon, and the younger guys are trying to compete with me and I’ve got to keep changing my best.”

Fleck said it wasn’t that simple when he took over as Gophers coach two years ago. Forming a team and building a program takes time.

“When your best players are your hardest workers, you’re starting to form a team and we’re finally getting to that point where our best players work the hardest,” Fleck said.

Fleck said after practice Seth Green will be out for a few weeks with a lower body injury. He doesn’t consider it serious, and hasn’t ruled him out for the April 13 Spring Game. Winston Delattiboudere went down in practice with what appeared to be a knee injury, but was walking and stood on the sidelines the rest of practice. Tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford also left practice early with ice on his right knee, but was walking.

Other practice notes:

  • In individual drills, Ibrahim, Jason Williamson and Demetrius Douglas all broke tackles for long touchdown runs. Ibrahim also broke a Winfield Jr. tackle for a touchdown.
  • In a drill where defenders had to fight their way off blocks to make a tackle or give up to touchdown, the defense won 10-3 and made eight consecutive stops.
  • In 7-on-7 drills, Tanner Morgan threw touchdowns to Rashod Bateman, Tyler Johnson and Bryce Williams. Johnson had a highlight reel 1-handed catch in the back corner of the end zone.
  • Redshirt freshman wide receiver Erik Gibson had three acrobatic catches, all for touchdowns, in tight coverage during team drills.
  • Offensive lineman Kyle Sassack has switched his jersey number to 74 to honor Nick Connelly, who died from cancer last year.

The Gophers have one more open Spring Practice on April 2 before the Spring Game on April 13 at TCF Bank Stadium.