MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota football season is 42 days away, and the Gophers face a huge task hosting Ohio State in front of what they hope is a sellout crowd at the newly-named Huntington Bank Stadium.
The Buckeyes are coming off a 52-24 loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff national title game. the Gophers went 3-4 in 2020, having two games canceled and the roster altered due to COVID-19 issues.
The Big n held its football media day on Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. P.J. Fleck, entering his fifth season with the Gophers, took the podium and was as optimistic as ever. The Gophers have 10 starters back on offense and defense, have added a few key transfers and despite that, are still predicted to finish fourth in the Big Ten West.
Fleck said, like he did during spring football, the motto for the 2021 season is TGIF (Togetherness, Gratitude, Identity and Focus.
"Being together, being grateful, having an identity and focusing on each other. That’s what I want people to see when they watch us play, period. I want our team to be the most together football team in the country," Fleck said.
Fleck gave updates on Tanner Morgan, Mo Ibrahim, Boye Mafe and talked about players now being able to benefit off their name, image and likeness.
FLECK ‘FIRED UP’ ABOUT NAME, IMAGE AND LIKENESS RULING
A hot topic in college sports this summer is the NCAA ruling that athletes can now benefit off their name, image and likeness. Several athletes already have endorsement deals. Morgan has a deal where fans can pay $29 for a personal video message from him.
Fleck said he’s "fired up" that athletes can now benefit.
"Our location, the Twin City area, the 3.5 million people we have in our city, the 18 Fortune 500 companies, this isn’t a small little college town," Fleck said. "This is awesome now that players get to benefit off their name, image and likeness. Change is inevitable, this was coming, we all knew that."
MO IBRAHIM IS ‘THE IDENTITY OF OUR FOOTBALL TEAM’
The season is still more than a month away, but Mo Ibrahim will have the attention of other Big Ten teams in the fall. He’s a preseason Doak Walker candidate, he’s on the Maxwell Award Watch List and he’s back as the reigning Big Ten Running Back of the Year.
In seven games, Ibrahim led the Big Ten in rushing (1,076 yards) and rushing touchdowns, and set a school record averaging 153.7 yards rushing per game last season, and scored four touchdowns in a game twice. He’s been named a preseason All-American by three different outlets.
"Kind of like a bowling ball going downhill with razor blades on it. He’s not the biggest guy, not the strongest guy, not the fastest guy, but he is one of the toughest guys I think in the country. I’m glad he’s on our team," Fleck said. "When you talk about the identity of our football team, Mohamed Ibrahim represents that perfectly."
BREAKOUT YEAR FOR BOYE MAFE?
The Gophers have 11 players back using the free year of eligibility, granted by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. One of them is rush end Boye Mafe, who had 4.5 sacks in six games last season. Fleck is expecting a big year from Mafe, who is now a three-year veteran with the Gophers’ defense and learned plenty playing behind Carter Coughlin, now with the New York Giants.
A guy that’s an absolute freak when you talk about vertical jump, size, weight, speed. He’s going to come to this stadium one day, probably after this year, and just blow the combine out of the water," Fleck said.
TANNER MORGAN ‘THE HEARTBEAT OF OUR FOOTBALL TEAM’
It’s been a trying 18 months for Tanner Morgan, who’s father Ted died last week after battling a brain tumor. Ted had the cancer removed in the spring of 2020, but took a turn for the worse in recent weeks.
Tanner led the Gophers to an 11-2 season in 2019, with his father watching every moment by his side. Tanner went home to be with his family for Ted’s final days.
"Heartbeat of our football team. This guy is the ultimate leader, he’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever met. To watch him go through the last year and a half as his dad battled brain cancer was incredibly inspiring," Fleck said.
Fleck also gave an update on former Gophers’ holder Casey O’Brien, a five-time cancer survivor. O’Brien has left football and is now in the financial advising industry at RBC Wealth Management. O’Brien called Fleck earlier this week, his latest cancer scans are clean.
The Gophers have high expectations for the 2021 season, and they’ll arguably get their biggest litmus test Week 1 against the Buckeyes.