MINNEAPOLIS - The University of Minnesota football team starts fall camp on Aug. 1, but on Tuesday, coach PJ Fleck raved about his program at Big Ten Media Days as he enters his sixth season with the Gophers.
Fleck is 35-23 in five seasons at Minnesota, including 21-22 in Big Ten play. He’s 3-0 in bowl games with the Gophers, including last year’s 18-6 win over West Virginia at the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. The regular season ended with a dominating 23-13 win over Wisconsin at Huntington Bank Stadium, but Fleck has said in the offseason he failed as a head coach.
That’s because the Gophers had a stunning non-conference home loss to Bowling Green, and were Big Ten wins against Illinois and Iowa away from representing the West at the Big Ten title game. That’s why 2022 is as good a time as ever for the program to take that next step.
"There’s a lot of positive things in our program, can’t wait to see what happens this season. It’s a fun time, it’s a committed team and probably more than I’ve ever had in the six years I’ve been in Minnesota," Fleck told reporters at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. "Probably the most committed team and I look forward to what they have."
The Gophers are led by what’s referred to as the "Encore 4," a group of four players that are all back for their sixth season with the program. Quarterback Tanner Morgan has two degrees from the university and recently got married, John Michael Schmitz is the lone returning starter from the offensive line, Mo Ibrahim is back from a torn Achilles against Ohio State and Chris Autman-Bell leads a group of the top-five receivers back.
The most exciting part of that group might be Ibrahim. He ran for 163 yards and two scores against the Buckeyes before a torn Achilles ended his 2022 season. Recently named to the Maxwell Award watch list, Ibrahim was the 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year after rushing for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns in just seven games.
Ibrahim is currently eighth in Gophers’ program history with 3,003 career rushing yards in 29 games.
"Here’s a guy who could’ve gone to the NFL after tearing his Achilles. I think we all saw it, he was primed for a huge season. Decided to come back not only for himself, but for his teammates," Fleck said. "He did it for the team and to kind of put a different ending on what happened. I think he’s one of the best backs in the country, but more importantly one of the best people you will ever meet in your entire life."
Fleck and the Gophers had a top-three rushing offense in the Big Ten last season, despite losing Ibrahim, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams to injuries. Potts has also been cleared to practice this fall after his season ended with an undisclosed injury at Purdue that required him to spend six nights in an Indiana-area hospital.
Fleck's challenge is to stay in that top rushing tier with four new starters on the offensive line.
Joining Fleck at Big Ten Media Days were Morgan, Schmitz, linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin and safety Tyler Nubin. He called Sori-Marin, the team’s top returning tackler, "the ultimate connector on our defense."
Sori-Marin and Nubin were key pieces of a defense that was No. 3 in rushing in the Big Ten last season, and finished in the top-10 in the country in scoring and total defense.
Entering his sixth year with the Gophers, Fleck has stressed the importance of having a player-led team.
"The committed part is always have to versus want to. Our leadership on this football team is fully-committed to all of it. They want to do the have-to work, they can’t wait to do it. They’re off the field on their own doing unrequired work, doing unrequired things together," Fleck said. "This team is fully committed to each other, and it’s been fun to watch. They don’t have time for silliness, they go right in, get their work done and get better."
Fleck has every reason to believe the Gophers can compete in the Big Ten West in 2022. They’ve had at least four players drafted the last two full seasons, which were also at least nine-win seasons. That hasn’t happened at Minnesota since 1900-1905.
He feels they have the talent and work ethic to take the program to the next level.
"When your best players are your hardest workers, I think you have something really special," Fleck said.
The Gophers open the 2022 regular season in just 37 days on Thursday, Sept. 1 against former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill and New Mexico State at Huntington Bank Stadium.