MINNEAPOLIS - In exactly three weeks, the University of Minnesota football team will open the 2022 regular season against former coach Jerry Kill and New Mexico State at Huntington Bank Stadium.
To help get the Gophers ready for an 8 p.m. kickoff, PJ Fleck and his staff took the team to the stadium for practice Thursday night. It was the last session of fall camp open to fans, and it was the first full session outside since the spring. The Gophers moved the April Spring Game, and the first open practice of fall camp, inside due to inclement weather.
A few hundred fans had a gorgeous night for football Thursday, and the team’s best players made plays.
"That’s the point, bring people in the stands, put some pressure on them, put them under the lights, bring them in the stadium and see what they do. See where we’re at," Fleck said after practice.
Among the guests at Thursday’s practice – Gophers’ men’s basketball coach Ben Johnson, and former defensive back Coney Durr.
Among the offensive highlights – Tanner Morgan hitting Michael Brown-Stephens for a touchdown, and Brevyn Spann-Ford, Chris Autman-Bell and Dylan Wright for athletic completions during 7-on-7 drills. The defense took its turn as well, with Beanie Bishop, Ryan Stapp, Tyler Nubin and Jordan Howden all getting pass break-ups.
The defense also made a pair of fourth down stops in team situations, and one ended with linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin getting the last word with offensive teammates. The play of the night might have come from Terell Smith. Tanner Morgan went deep for Autman-Bell, and Smith made a leaping play to knock it away.
Fleck sprinted down the field to celebrate the play with Smith.
"This is fun, supposed to be fun, right? I know it’s a business and I know you gotta win, but when you’re around 17-23 year-olds for a living, it keeps you young. I don’t get to them as fast as I used to get to them," Fleck said. "Watching T-Time, he’s made plays like that all camp. He’s probably made four or five of those. He has poured it on in training camp."
The Gophers will scrimmage on Saturday, and have one more session open to media next week.
JOHN MICHAEL SCHMITZ ANCHORING NEW-LOOK OFFENSIVE LINE
John Michael Schmitz remembers when he could walk up to the line of scrimmage, point at a defensive lineman and his teammates would know what to do.
That was last season, when his offensive line teammates were Daniel Faalele, Conner Olson, Blaise Andries and Sam Schlueter. They had all played multiple seasons together, and knew each other’s skills and tendencies. Now, Schmitz is a sixth-year senior and the old man in the offensive line room.
The center enters the 2022 season on watch lists for the Rimington Award, Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award. He’s the anchor of a new-look offensive line that’s featured Aireontae Ersery, Martes Lewis, Chuck Filiaga and Axel Ruschmeyer getting first-team reps. He’s also watching a battle for a starting spot between Lewis, transfer Quinn Carroll and JJ Guedet, who is back at practice after offseason surgery.
"We always talk about competition, competing with one another. I couldn’t ask for a better job with what Cally (offensive line coach Brian Callahan) is doing developing these guys," Schmitz said. "They’re battling each and every day and giving it all their effort. I’m excited to see who’s going to be in that five."
The offensive line has 181 starts to replace and the good news is they have depth behind whoever ends up being the starting five.
WALLEY LOOKING TO BUILD OFF FABULOUS FRESHMAN SEASON
Justin Walley couldn’t have asked for a better freshman season in Minnesota’s secondary. He played in every game, got six starts, had 29 tackles, seven pass break-ups, forced a fumble and recovered two. His only interception of the season was a game-changer in the Gophers’ 23-13 win over rival Wisconsin to end the regular season.
So how does he stay grounded going into his second year? He’s watched film and worked with defensive backs coach Paul Haynes.
"After the season watching the film, it was good but I know I can play a lot better," Walley said. "Coach Haynes showed me the things I did wrong and can improve on. Eye discipline, being more physical and being more consistent, that keeps me grounded knowing I lacked those qualities last year."
Walley also gets tested every day in practice, going against Minnesota’s top two receivers in Chris Autman-Bell and Dylan Wright both in team and individual drills.
"Really the whole cornerback room, guarding those two guys, in our opinion they’re top guys in the country so we know that to go against them every day makes us a completely better unit," Walley said.