Spring football: Gophers hold first open practice for 2020 season

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck during a Big Ten conference football game between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and the Iowa Hawkeyes on November 16, 2019, at Kinnick Stadium, Iowa. (Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire / Getty Images)

Football fans and local media got their first look at the 2020 version of the University of Minnesota program on Friday as the team held its first open practice of the spring season.

P.J. Fleck’s Gophers are coming off their first 11-win season in 115 years, seven Big Ten wins for the first time ever and beating SEC power Auburn on the Outback Bowl. It’s time to turn the page, and that starts at spring practice.

Spring workouts started Tuesday, and Friday marked the first day in full pads. Fleck left practice with pages of notes he took during the afternoon, and planned to have a staff meeting to address several questions he had after the first week. Spring is as good a time as any to evaluate, tinker with positions and improve.

“In March when you’re a head football coach, man it’s hard to think you have a good football team. It’s really hard. I love the guys, it’s a special group. We’re not an extension off last year, it’s their own personality but as a head coach, you come out of here thinking man are we ever going to get this thing?” Fleck said. “You know you will, this is just the fun part of the process.”

An offense that returns nine starters from last year had its moments, good and bad. Tanner Morgan hit Chris-Autman Bell for what would’ve been a long touchdown over Terrell Smith in coverage. Morgan looked for his tight ends frequently, and to the surprise of nobody, often looked for reigning Big Ten Receiver of the Year Rashod Bateman.

Last year, the trio was Tyler Johnson, Bateman and Autman-Bell. Morgan spread the ball around for more than 3,200 yards and 34 points per game. This year, the hope is that trio is Bateman, Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas, with the tight ends sprinkled in. Fleck says it’s time for Bateman to take that lead role.

“Tyler was a little bit more of the Batman, you have the ability be Robin and come in when you need to be able to do that. He’s now that Batman and we need the other guys to continue to emerge,” Fleck said.

Bateman finished last season with more than 1,200 yards receiving and 11 touchdowns. The sky is the limit with most of the offense back.

“We know it’s special but every individual has to get better for the offense to get better and keep growing and growing daily,” Bateman said.

With spring practice comes a few adversities. Mo Ibrahim is out studying abroad, leaving mostly reserves to take the reps. Every running back who got a carry Friday fumbled at some point.

Offensive lineman Daniel Faalele got a tongue-lashing from Fleck, briefly left the field and came back a few minutes later to finish practice.

“Response. All I want to see is a response. He came back, I think he had to collect his thoughts. He was in there for a lot of plays and he’s got to keep getting better. These are kids, and we’re constantly challenging them,” Fleck said. “However he had to deal with that, he dealt with it. That’s what I want to see.”

Spring practice is a greater challenge for Minnesota’s defense, which has to replace at least seven starters from 2019. That includes the entire linebacking group of Thomas Barber, Kamal Martin and rush end Carter Coughlin.

That charge is led by Mariano Sori-Marin, who is already assuming a leadership role on defense. He’s getting help from Boye Mafe, Josh Aune, Jordan Howden and Esezi Otomewu, who all had flashes in practice Friday. Sori-Marin stepped in when Martin hurt his knee last season, and finished with 42 tackles.

The defense will have several new faces this season, and getting it to gel is the next challenge they embrace.

“It’s a challenge but at the same time, challenges are opportunities. This defense is, you saw it today, we’re really excited about what we have to offer. Guys are having fun together and guys are really connecting this spring ball,” Sori-Marin said.

Special teams highlights included both Michael Lantz and Gelecinskyj converting on every field goal situation, and Australian punter Mark Crawford pinning a punt inside the 3-yard line.

There will be three more open workouts in the spring season, capped by the April 4 Spring Game at TCF Bank Stadium.