Strong 2018 finish boosting Gophers in spring practice

PJ Fleck talks Gopher football spring practice.

There was a greater sense of urgency and energy as the Gopher football team held its third practice of the spring season at their indoor facility Friday afternoon.

It was the team’s first practice that was open to the public and media, and it was the team’s final workout before they departed for Spring Break. It was also probably one of their most fun, with Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman in attendance on his 99th birthday.

Gophers coach PJ Fleck stopped practice, with hundreds of fans in attendance, so he and his team could sing Hartman “Happy Birthday.” They presented him with a Gophers helmet, and a No. 99 jersey.

“I gave a pop quiz to our team on when was he born. I asked Blaise Andries because he’s an actuary. Boom, 1920,” Fleck said. “All the things he’s done for the state of Minnesota and I can’t tell you how great he’s been to our football team. It’s just so fun to see him hustle and work the way he works.”

On the football side of things, practice was fast and chaotic with drills and sequences changing as fast as a whistle can blow.

But the players, especially those returning from last season, made it all look seamless amid the constant change. It’s something Fleck does regularly to get his team ready for the chaos of a regular season game.

Returners Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad appear to be the front-runners to play quarterback this season. But freshmen Jacob Clark and Cole Kramer will do everything they can to push whoever the starter ends up being.

Both played significantly last year. Annexstad was sidelined by an ankle injury, and Morgan stepped into help lead the Gophers to wins in three of their last four games. Flecks likes what he sees all over the field so far, even if it’s only been three practices.

“I thought the first three days were exceptional. I thought we picked up where we left off to end the season. The willingness to do all the work is there, and that’s what I love to see,” Fleck said.

Gophers linebacker Carter Coughlin, who helped lead a defensive turnaround when Joe Rossi took over as coordinator, sees a team that’s on the way to building something special. Minnesota finished with a signature 37-15 win at Wisconsin, then followed it up with a dominating 34-10 win over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.

“A huge energizer for us was the way we ended last season because we see the potential for our team. It definitely gave us a great jump start going into spring ball. If you watched us today, we were flying around having fun,” Coughlin said.

Running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, who both missed most of last season with injuries, were limited in Friday’s practice and won’t do much in the spring season. Fleck said he wants them to take their time in recovery and be ready for the fall. Antoine Winfield Jr., who missed most of last season with a foot injury, is participating in practice but is limited.

It didn’t stop him, however, from delivering a hit on Mohamed Ibrahim during a portion of team drills on Friday.

The biggest challenge in spring practice is for Minnesota’s 14 new enrollees, both freshmen and transfers, to get acclimated. It’s a process that takes time, and it’s why there is spring ball.

“I think it was a whirlwind. I think it was ‘Wow, this is Big Ten football.’ When you get in the Big Ten, you’ve come early as a freshman, it can wake you up pretty quick,” Fleck said. “We want our guys to fail as much as possible, and then grow. We want them to fail, and fail often, and continue to raise the bar every single day.”

What might have been most noticeable, other than the energy from the players and coaches, was the fan attendance. Families, recruits and football fans, a couple hundred of them, filled the sideline at the indoor facility to watch what they hope is the construction of a program than can compete for a Big Ten championship on a regular basis.

“It was tremendous our fans showed up, it means so much to our players. When our fans are around, it just lifts the competition a little bit more,” Fleck said.

Fleck is known for building championship contenders. It’s what he did at Western Michigan. It’s what he hopes he can do at Minnesota, and what hasn’t been done in five decades.

The Gophers will have three more spring practices, including the Spring Game, open to the public. The next open practice will be March 26. The Spring Game is set for 11 a.m. on April 13 at TCF Bank Stadium.