Gophers ready for 2018 finish to be stepping stone

PJ Fleck called the 2018 football season a "Race to Mah-turity."

The team, consisting mostly of freshmen and sophomores, had to grow up in a hurry between walk-ons seeing time on the field and injuries to key upperclassmen. As Fleck embarks on his third season leading the Gopher football program, 80 percent of the team still consists of freshmen and sophomores. The difference now is they have tangible, in-game playing experience.

Fleck says the mission this year is educating his players on how to win football games.

After all, head coaches and programs are ultimately judged on wins and what bowl game those wins send them to.

"How can this football team maximize the win column the best we possibly can? That starts with winning today, being the best people we can be, the best players we can be, today," Fleck said.

Minnesota is coming off a 7-6 season in 2018, and its signature win under Fleck so far. The Gophers won at Wisconsin 37-15 to win back Paul Bunyan's Axe. It was their first win over the Badgers in 14 years, and their first win at Wisconsin since 1994.

The Gophers then beat Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl, creating a potential springboard to the 2019 season.

"Last year is another stepping stone. We talk about changing our best every single day, and I'm sure you guys have heard that a lot today, but that's the reality of the way we look at everything," senior linebacker Carter Coughlin said.

But the reality is none of it matters if the Gophers don't get off to a strong start this season. Fleck's luxury is he's going from having one quarterback on scholarship this time last year to four with Tanner Morgan, Zack Annexstad, Cole Kramer and Jacob Clark.

Fleck said Tuesday Morgan and Annexstad will split reps early in fall camp, until a leader emerges. He also acknowledged he'll need both this season, just like he did last year. Annexstad won the starting job in fall camp before injuries ended his season after six games. Morgan started the final seven games and helped lead the Gophers to wins over Indiana, Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech to end the season.

"They gained a ton of experience. Both guys that we have, whether it's Tanner or Zack, they started football games, they won big games for us, they won close games for us," Fleck said. "But they also lost as well and I think to become a champion and to be able to have a lot of success, you have to have that failing along the path to become a really successful person or a really successful quarterback."

The Gophers will also have a healthy competition at running back. Rodney Smith has been cleared to return for fall camp after suffering a season-ending knee injury against Fresno State last season. Shannon Brooks isn't far behind him after suffering a knee injury in his first game back last season against Indiana.

The two have combined for more than 4,800 career rushing yards and 39 touchdowns. Mohamed Ibrahim started as Minnesota's No. 3 running back last year, and as a freshman, ran for 1,160 yards and nine touchdowns.

They'll compete with each other for carries, but they'll also work together.

"You want to have depth. Last year we had Rodney and Shannon go down and everybody probably in this room had no idea what we were going to do, it was complete panic," Fleck said. "When you have five or six guys that can really play, that's a good thing."

They're also hoping the defense picks up where it left off, allowing a little more than 14 points per game on average in the last four games for interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi. He had the interim label removed after the win at Wisconsin, replacing Robb Smith, who was let go after the Gophers gave up 55 points in a loss to Illinois and started the Big Ten season 1-5.

Despite the strong finish, projections for the Gophers' 2019 season are all over the board. Some have them being in the top 25 and contending in the Big Ten West. Others have them struggling to get to six wins and finishing near the bottom of the division.

The players aren't really paying it much attention. They'll let their play do the talking.

"My dad always says don't believe the hype because you've still got to play a game. That's kind of what we have with the "Row the Boat" culture, the how, the HYPRR culture. We gotta do the process and we gotta do the work still," senior linebacker Thomas Barber said. "Hype is all fun, but you still gotta put in the work."

Fleck took it a step further, saying nobody puts more pressure on him than himself. He hopes the players follow.

"We want expectation, we've been preparing for pressure and expectation and having this wide range, no matter what position we're talking about. This range from some people think we're top 25, some people think we're sixth in the West. That is a huge spectrum, and we have to be ready for everything," Fleck said. "We've been preparing for that since January with this football team."

Fall camp starts Wednesday for the Gophers, and they host South Dakota State in the season-opener on Aug. 29.