MINNEAPOLIS — Fall camp has begun at Minnesota with a rare open audition at quarterback. Half the roster is composed of redshirt or true freshmen. New schemes have been installed on both sides of the ball.
There is no team in the Big Ten undergoing more drastic change this season than the Gophers, starting with their 36-year-old whirlwind coach, P.J. Fleck.
“A lot of energy has been brought to this complex,” defensive tackle Steven Richardson said. “With the other coaches I was very calm. I always kind of kept to myself, but it definitely brought a leadership role out of me.”
Fleck brought his unabashed optimism and bounty of buzzwords, including the trademarked “Row the Boat” slogan to preach perseverance and unity, from Western Michigan after an improbable Cotton Bowl appearance and a 13-1 record. Fleck replaced Tracy Claeys, who was fired after a clash between the team and the administration over the process behind the bowl-game suspension of 10 players in connection with alleged sexual misconduct.
There’s hardly another coach in country more wired to handle a fresh start.
“They’re all over the place,” linebacker Blake Cashman said. “It fuels us, gets us going, and makes practice a lot of fun.”
Cashman, whose team-high 7½ sacks all came over the last eight games, was put on scholarship for his junior season. He learned of the honor after a team-wide egg hunt at the facility this spring.
“It really shows where Coach Fleck’s heart’s at,” Cashman said.
Fifth-year walk-on Justin Juenemann, the third-string kicker, was rewarded in similar fashion this week through a message shot from a T-shirt gun.
The Gophers will enter 2017 with many unproven players, notably wide receivers and defensive backs. They will ride running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks as much as they can and rely on a rich collection of linebackers to steer the defense.
“We could go 12-0 or 0-12. I’m not worried about the ‘W’ or the ‘L,’ what that looks like. I’m worried about this team doing everything they can to become their best,” Fleck said.
Here are some other angles to follow with the Gophers this season:
RHODA VS. CROFT: Fleck announced last week that both Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft will split time at quarterback. Rhoda, a fifth-year senior, started one game last season for an injured Mitch Leidner. Croft subbed in three games as a freshman before redshirting last year.
Fleck wants to see how they handle real competition before anointing a full-time starter.
“You have a tough quarterback, you have a tough team,” Fleck said. “We have to find out how tough the quarterbacks are.”
MIDWEEK MEDITATION: After 22 players had offseason surgery, keeping the team healthy is a key goal. “Zen Wednesdays” are one way to try. There’s no better picture of Fleck’s creative spirit and holistic approach in program development than these midweek sessions for massage, stretching and yoga. Practice that day is a non-contact walk-through, without pads. Then the lights are dimmed, the music plays and the relaxation begins.
“I definitely feel better the next day, at night even,” Smith said.
HEAL AND HOLD THE LINE: Offensive line coach Ed Warriner, who was Ohio State’s offensive coordinator last year, has four players (Garrison Wright, Donnell Greene, Vincent Calhoun and Jared Weyler) who started seven or more games in 2016. But injuries could expose suspect depth.
“I feel great, honestly, going into fall camp,” said Weyler, who will likely move from guard to center. “I’m really happy where I’m at.”
SEASON OPENER: The Gophers host Buffalo on Aug. 31, their fifth straight Thursday night lid-lifter at TCF Bank Stadium. This will be the 10th time in 18 years that Minnesota has started the season on a Thursday. The Gophers beat the Bulls 41-17 in 2002, their only previous meeting.
KEY GAMES: The Oct. 14 matchup at home with Michigan State, the 2015 Big Ten champs who went 3-9 last year, looms large. An Oct. 28 visit to rival Iowa, where Minnesota has not won since 1999, promises to be pivotal. The Nov. 25 home game against Wisconsin, with a humbling losing streak to the hated Badgers now at 13 straight games, wraps up the schedule.
PREDICTION: There’s a good chance the Gophers will be favored to win their first seven games, a benefit for an inexperienced team, but matching last season’s 9-4 mark is a lot to ask. Consecutive trips to Iowa and Michigan kick off a daunting final five weeks. Finishing 7-5 with a bowl bid would be a safer bet.