MINNEAPOLIS - PJ Fleck and his staff meet with every single University of Minnesota football player every Monday during the season. But the conversation has nothing to do with football, or what happened on the field the week before, win or lose.
The talk is personal, how they’re doing in life as a person and college student. If they’re struggling, they’re encouraged to talk openly about it. Fleck and his staff closely monitor their players’ body language, their demeanor, whether it’s a good day or not. His message? Promoting awareness for mental health.
"It’s about body language, did somebody say something to somebody? Is somebody looking differently? Did a girlfriend break up with him? did he get an F on a test? Is he just acting a little bit different?" Fleck said Monday. "That way we can all put our arms around them if there is something and can look for signs constantly. If you’re out there struggling, you’re not alone."
The Gophers take a 1-0 record into Saturday’s game against Western Illinois at Huntington Bank Stadium after beating New Mexico State and Jerry Kill 38-0 last Thursday. The team will wear green ribbons on their helmets to promote mental health awareness. Since day one at Minnesota, Fleck’s "Row the Boat" culture has centered around overcoming adversity.
Fleck has an open-door policy for players at Athletes Village. If they’re struggling with anything, football or not, somebody is always there to help or lend an ear. The Gophers have a player-led leadership council and board of directors, driven so that Fleck has an open line of communication with the entire team.
The Gophers also work closely with Rachel Baribeau, a motivational speaker and author of, "Changing the Narrative." Fleck said he considers her a "big sister" to many players on the team.
Mental health has come to the forefront of college sports, and it’s hit close to home for the Gophers. Former star running back Marion Barber III was found dead back in June in his Texas apartment, after years of struggling with mental health issues. Back in 2019, standout running back Shannon Brooks pondered taking his own life after struggles with injuries, and his mother being on life support.
Fleck says they do their best to prepare for every possible scenario with players away from football.
"If anybody is struggling out there, make sure you look for help. It’s OK not to be OK. Make sure you look out there and talk to some people," Fleck said. "I think we all need that time and space and those people to talk to, including myself. Not afraid to say that. Constantly letting them now it’s OK not to be OK."
QUINN CARROLL GETS FIRST START AT RIGHT TACKLE
When Minnesota’s offense took the field for the first time against New Mexico State, it was former Edina star and Notre Dame transfer Quinn Carroll getting the first snaps at right tackle. Carroll was in a competition with Martes Lewis and JJ Guedet for the spot.
The starting offensive line last Thursday was Aireontae Ersery, Carroll, John Michael Schmitz, Axel Ruschmeyer and Michigan transfer Chuck Filiaga. Behind that group, the Gophers ran for 300 yards, five touchdowns and averaged 5.2 yards per carry. Mo Ibrahim and Trey Potts combined for 38 carries, 221 yards and three scores.
Lewis had gotten a majority of the first-team reps during fall camp in practices open to the media and public. Carroll earned the starting nod.
"For Quinn it’s his maturity level. He went and won the job. It does not mean JJ is not going to play, does not mean Martes is not going to play, does not mean Nathan Boe is not going to play. They’re going to play, but Quinn has earned the opportunity to win the starting right tackle job," Fleck said.
Ruschmeyer left injured during the third quarter last Thursday and walked gingerly to the injury tent. Fleck said Monday he’s fine and available to play Saturday.
DEFENSE DOMINATES ON JUST 33 SNAPS
It might be difficult for Fleck and his staff to evaluate Minnesota’s defense after just one game. The Gophers allowed just six first downs, 91 total yards and forced six Aggies’ punts. They attempted 12 passes, the Gophers got sacks from Thomas Rush and Danny Striggow.
The problem, if you want to call it that, is Minnesota’s defense got just 33 snaps in its first game. It caused Fleck to extend practice on Monday to get his defense more looks. He joked Monday he had defensive players in his office after a game last season, complaining they didn’t get enough snaps.
It’s a good problem to have.
"Somebody came in and they were disappointed because they weren’t playing enough. I’m not getting enough snaps here, what do you mean you’re not getting enough snaps? That’s a good thing, we’re not giving up many points and we’re not playing a lot." Fleck said. "The last thing I want is our defense playing 90 snaps. If players are looking for that, then they’re in the wrong place."
The Gophers host Western Illinois in their second non-conference game at 11 a.m. Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium. They are 37.5-point favorites.