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Minnesota Football: P.J. Fleck’s next defensive coordinator will decide his fate

The importance of this hire cannot be overstated

NCAA Football: Indiana at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

In his introductory press conference after he was first hired as head football coach at Minnesota, P.J. Fleck said, “I eat difficult conversations for breakfast.”

Well, last night’s difficult conversation with defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Robb Smith was long overdue and couldn’t wait until breakfast Monday morning. And that difficult conversation begets an even more difficult decision, one that will more than likely decide Fleck’s future as head football coach at Minnesota.

One of the highlights of Jerry Kill/Tracy Claeys era at Minnesota was their tough defenses. Gone were the soul-crushing defensive collapses of the Glen Mason years and the mind-numbing incompetence of the Tim Brewster regime. And Claeys delivered his masterpiece in what would be the final game of his tenure, smothering Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense with a short-handed defense to lead Minnesota past Washington State in the Holiday Bowl, 17-12.

Blake Cashman and Kamal Martin are among the slew of current Gopher upperclassmen who were part of that brilliant defensive performance, which is what makes watching games like Saturday’s 55-31 loss to Illinois all the more painful.

It was Cashman who was out of his gap on the Fighting Illini’s second play of the game, failing to read the pulling offensive lineman and instead keying in on the running back. With Cashman out of the play, Reggie Corbin saw a lane to the end zone, sprinting 72 yards for the touchdown.

And it was Martin who, in the third quarter, looked lost when responsible for Illinois tight end Daniel Barker in man coverage. Barker slipped past Martin almost immediately, allowing quarterback A.J. Bush to find him for a 30-yard touchdown reception and a 38-17 lead.

I’m not pointing this out to embarrass Cashman or Martin. Both are good players. Just because they weren’t recruited by Fleck doesn’t change that. They were both failed by their position coach and defensive coordinator. Granted, Robb Smith can’t be out there on the field with them every play, but it was his responsibility to develop and prepare them.

Smith’s failings were not limited to his responsibilities as linebackers coach. His defense last season struggled to stop the run against Big Ten offenses, but the floodgates burst open this season, allowing for some of the worst defensive performances in program history:

  • vs Maryland: 37 attempts, 315 rushing yards, 8.5 yards per carry
  • vs Nebraska: 43 attempts, 383 rushing yards, 8.9 yards per carry
  • vs Illinois: 35 attempts, 430 rushing yards, 12.3 yards per carry

And the 2018 Gophers are allowing an average of 43 points per game against Big Ten opponents. You’re not going to win a lot of games giving up that many points, regardless of how well your offense is playing. It has rendered Minnesota non-competitive in Big Ten play and effectively reversed course from the precedent set by Kill and Claeys.

It’s also troubling that there were warning signs before Smith ever stepped foot on campus. He was essentially run out of Arkansas by then head coach Bret Bielema after the Razorbacks’ defense declined each year under Smith before bottoming out in 2016. Fleck offered Smith a life preserver in the form of a fresh start at Minnesota, based almost certainly on the fact that the two had coached together at Rutgers under Greg Schiano.

It was a gamble, and one that unfortunately blew up in Fleck’s face. And now, two seasons into his tenure at Minnesota, Fleck is hitting the reset button with a new defensive coordinator, and he can’t afford to make the same mistake twice. Because there will be people reaching for a different kind of reset button if these next two years are anything like the first two.