‘Grow Higher’: Gophers start spring football after historic 2019 season

Bryce Witham #85 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers celebrates a touchdown during the 2020 Outback Bowl against the Auburn Tigers at Raymond James Stadium on January 01, 2020 in Tampa, Florida. ((Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images))

The University of Minnesota football team officially starts its spring season on Tuesday, but fans planning on going to Friday’s first open practice shouldn’t be surprised if they see bamboo around the Gophers’ practice facility.

PJ Fleck, entering his fourth season in Minnesota, isn’t shy when it comes to making mottos for every year. He brought “Row the Boat” to the Twin Cities, and recently called one season a “Race to Mahturity” with several freshman having to grow up in a hurry and play meaningful snaps, probably before they were ready.

This year? It’s “Grow Higher.” It involves bamboo, and the metaphorical house Fleck is building with the Gophers is getting windows in the 2020 season. If it all comes to fruition, he may have the Gophers contending for a spot in the College Football Playoff come December.

Fleck referenced bamboo on Monday, saying it takes three years to build underground before we see it grow 90 to 110 feet in the air. The Gophers have finished three years under Fleck, who got a contract extension last year in the week leading up to a historic win over then No. 4-ranked Penn State. The hope is the Gophers are ready to shoot up like bamboo out of the ground.

And the windows? Minnesota won’t sneak up on anybody this year. After winning 11 games, beating Auburn in the Outback Bowl and winning seven Big Ten games for the first time ever last season, Fleck and the Gophers have the attention of other teams across the country.

“The wonderful thing about a window is you can look out and see whatever you want to see. You can notice the birds, the sun, the clouds, the sky, but you can see whatever you decide to see. Whatever we want to decide to see, we can do that,” Fleck said. “However, different from last year, which we didn’t have any windows, we were picked sixth in the West. That probably won’t happen this year. So now we have windows that the outside world wants to peek in and see and study and know what we’re doing inside our house. We’ve got to be ready for all of that and we’ve got to be two steps ahead.”

Minnesota won 11 games for the first time in 115 years. The Gophers finished in the top 15 in final collegiate polls for the first time in decades. ESPN’s College GameDay came to Minneapolis, and the Gophers became a national brand.

Last year, the team talked about thinking something special was on the horizon. Eleven wins later, it’s now about building off that.

“We have to find a way to go from where we were at 11 wins, not just the number, but everybody’s perception of that, and we’ve got to go higher than that. We’ve got to find a way to be able to do those small, integral details, those fundamentals,” Fleck said.

That starts, at least on offense, with Tanner Morgan at quarterback. Fleck said Monday that Morgan will take the first-team reps for the Gophers during spring practices. Morgan won the starting job last fall after Zack Annexstad went down with a foot injury that required surgery.

He started all 13 games, completing 66 percent of his passes for more than 3,200 yards and 30 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. He set a completion percentage record at Purdue, with one incomplete pass on a throw-away. Morgan could see himself on early projections next fall as a contender for the Heisman Trophy.

For Fleck, Morgan has earned the right to be the first-team quarterback. It doesn’t mean he won’t be pushed, with Annexstad, Cole Kramer and Jacob Clark all wanting snaps.

“If you asked Tanner Morgan, as humble of a kid as he is, are you the starter? He’s going to say you’ve got to go earn it, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s going to be a very competitive spring and we want it to be that way,” Fleck said.

Morgan agrees.

“Everything has to be earned. What we did last year, whether it’s individually or collectively as a team, isn’t good enough anymore. No matter what happened, that’s not good enough,” Morgan said Monday. “The standard continues to be the standard and the expectations rise within our program and our four walls. So whatever happened last year isn’t good enough, and we have to be that much better individually and collectively as a team.”

Morgan and Fleck enter their fourth spring football session together, and Morgan is one of nine starters from last year back on offense. He’ll have new offensive coordinators to work with in Mike Sanford Jr. and Matt Simon. They’re combining to replace Kirk Ciarrocca, who departed for Penn State before the Outback Bowl.

With nine starters back, including the Big Ten Receiver of the Year in Rashod Bateman, expectations are high for the Gophers when they have the ball. They scored 34 points per game last season, third-most in school history, and won four Big Ten games by at least 20 points for the first time since 1934.

“We know how special we can be as a team. But it comes back to the ‘Grow Higher.’ There’s a lot of things that we need to work on and we need to get better. That stuff doesn’t just happen, it takes countless hours, countless practice reps, countless reps in the film room by yourself going through it mentally to get to that level. It’s not just show up on Saturday, roll the balls out and let’s play,” Morgan said. “That’s the thing with our guys, they understand that and they work their tails off all offseason for a guaranteed 12 opportunities in the fall.”

The Gophers are also condensing their spring schedule, with not having a bye week until after their 10th game in the fall. Friday’s practice is open to the public, and there will be two others open to the public before the April 4 Spring Game at TCF Bank Stadium.