Gophers talk 2019 season at State Fair

Thursday started with fun, food and the Minnesota State Fair for the Gopher football team.

But by the time they got on their team buses in the afternoon to head back to campus, it was back to business. The Gophers, after nearly a month of Training Camp, are now in game preparation.

Thursday was a day to see and greet their fans, and get ready for kickoff against South Dakota State in seven days. Players walked the State Fairgrounds and donned white shirts following PJ Fleck's motto since he stepped foot in Minneapolis. They said, "The Elite Minnesota Get-Together."

“This is wonderful. This really kicks off the start of our season. Training Camp is one thing, this ends Training Camp for us with our players. They’re all out here sharing the experience with the state of Minnesota,” Gophers coach PJ Fleck said. “It’s fun to get around and know who all your fans are, experience what Minnesota is all about.”

Fleck made the rounds with local media previewing the 2019 football season, while his players experienced the Midway, ate food and met their fans.

It’s a bittersweet day for senior defensive end Winston Delattiboudere. The Maryland native experienced his fifth year at the State Fair, and now considers Minnesota his second home.

“I love it. I never thought I would be more proud of a state that I wasn’t from. But being here for five years, I would have to say it’s no place like Minnesota and I’m proud to call it my second home,” DeLattiboudere said.

So what are some of their State Fair favorites? Fleck is all about the deep fried foods.

“Traditionally the deep fried olives are my favorite. We always love the cheese curds, they’re a must. I’m huge with fried pickles, love fried pickles. I had the fried egg roll this year, which was new, which was really good. And a gyro, I love gyros, gyros are one of my favorite foods,” Fleck said.

For DeLattiboudere, it’s alligator, donuts, Sweet Martha’s Cookies and experiencing the State Fair haunted house.

Now in his third season leading the Gophers, Fleck says his team has never been as connected as it now. They’re a week away from hosting the Jackrabbits at TCF Bank Stadium, and there’s plenty of excitement for the season ahead after winning at Wisconsin and beating Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.

South Dakota State enters next Thursday night ranked No. 4 in FCS. The Gophers enter the contest 12.5-point favorites.

National projections have the Gophers anywhere from winning only six games to contending for the Big Ten West title. In the first national polls, the Gophers were receiving votes, which hasn't happened in recent memory.

Fleck said he’s never seen that wide of a spectrum in his time coaching.

“I feel like we’re more connected than we’ve ever been. What that transpires into, what that turns into, we’ll find out,” Fleck said. “But I’m really excited about the progress we’re making in all areas.”

We’ll find out a lot about the Gophers next Thursday night. What we already know is that Tanner Morgan, who finished 3-1 as a starter last season, will be the starting quarterback after Zack Annexstad’s foot injury during Training Camp. Rodney Smith and Antoine Winfield Jr. are fully healed from their injuries and ready to go, and running back Shannon Brooks isn’t far behind.

Some competitions are still up for grabs with a week to go, including the kicker. Brock Walker and Michael Lantz have each gotten reps in Training Camp. Fleck says both have done well, but neither has won the kicking job.

“It’s getting clearer, but you might see both of them out there. I just want to see them both have experience in the game,” Fleck said. ‘I feel like nobody has really taken it. They’ve both performed very well, but nobody has really set themselves notches above the other. We’ll see what happens as we keep going.”

It’s fun to be excited about football again. For DeLattiboudere, it goes back to his freshman year. That was when they hosted No. 2-ranked TCU to open the season at TCF Bank Stadium.

“I will never forget it. No game was like it. So just being able to look around, seeing the energy, feeling the energy and it’s like well it’s time for me to lead the charge. That’s the best part about opening night,” DeLattiboudere said.

That, and starting the season 1-0.