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Minnesota Football: Evaluating Year 2 of the P.J. Fleck era

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Looking back on an emotional roller coaster of a season

Iowa v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Preseason Expectations

According to our preseason poll, expectations as far as expected win total were as follows:

So a 7-6 finish after the Gophers’ 34-10 victory over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl is right in line with preseason expectations. I think where most would take issue is in losses to perceived inferior opponents and, specifically, the nature of those losses.

Looking at our staff predictions from that preseason post, there were five games that did not go according to plan, so to speak:

  • 4 out of 7 expected a loss to Fresno State
  • 7 out of 7 expected a win over Maryland
  • 5 out of 7 expected a win over Nebraska
  • 7 out of 7 expected a win over Illinois
  • 6 out of 7 expected a loss to Wisconsin

Expected wins over New Mexico State, Miami (Ohio), and Indiana were unanimous. The majority expected losses to Iowa, Ohio State, and Northwestern and a win over Purdue.

What stands out are those losses to Maryland, Nebraska, and Illinois, none of whom were bowl-eligible by season’s end. In those three games, Minnesota allowed an average of 376 rushing yards per game, 203 passing yards per game, and 50 points per game. The Illinois game represented the last straw for defensive coordinator Robb Smith, who was fired the following day. The next four games under interim defensive coordinator Joe Rossi made a compelling case that Smith was to blame, and head coach P.J. Fleck bears responsibility for that bad hire. It’s hard not to imagine what the season could have been with a different defensive coordinator in place.

But would you trade those three losses for the wins over Fresno State and Wisconsin? You have to take the good with the bad. You can keep playing, “What if?” or you can accept the results. 7-6 is an appropriate record for this season, considering the peaks and valleys it provided.

From a historical perspective, here is how some of Fleck’s recent predecessors at Minnesota fared in their second years at the helm:

Jerry Kill: 6-7
Tim Brewster: 7-6
Glen Mason: 5-6
Jim Wacker: 4-7
John Gutekunst: 6-6

Grade: A-

Offense

Last year, after being shutout in back-to-back games by Northwestern and Wisconsin to end the season, Fleck promised, “There is no way we’re going to look like that next year.”

Promise made. Promise kept.

The Gophers traded Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft at quarterback for true freshman Zack Annexstad and redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan. Annexstad started the first seven games of the season before being sidelined due to a bad ankle and internal bleeding, opening the door for Morgan to start the final six games of the season, including the bowl game. Together, these two freshmen eclipsed the Gophers’ total passing yards from the previous season (from 1,513 to 2,678), completed a higher percentage of their passes (from 47.4 percent to 54.8 percent), and doubled the number of passing touchdowns (from nine to 18).

Both quarterbacks benefited from a revitalized wide receiver corps, led by All-B1G wide receiver Tyler Johnson. Johnson doubled his number of receptions (from 35 to 78) en route to breaking the school records for most receiving yards (1,169) and receiving touchdowns (12) in a single season. He became the Gophers’ first 1,000-yard receiver since 2008 and only the fourth receiver in school history to record 10 touchdowns in a single season. For once, Johnson had a supporting cast, including true freshman Rashod Bateman. Bateman set a single-season freshman record with 51 receptions, recording 704 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Chris Autman-Bell also lent a helping hand, contributing 28 receptions for 449 receiving yards.

Minnesota lost starting senior running back Rodney Smith to a torn ACL in the second game of the season — and Shannon Brooks later followed suit after one game of action — so the Gophers were forced to turn to redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim and true freshman Bryce Williams to carry the load. Ibrahim missed three games due to injury, but became a force to be reckoned with as the season went along. He rushed for 1,160 yards — the second highest single-season total by a freshman at Minnesota — on 202 attempts and nine touchdowns. Ibrahim effectively carried Minnesota to the finish line against Wisconsin and Georgia Tech, accounting for a hard-fought 345 rushing yards over those two games to fuel a tough ground game.

The offense also introduced a Swiss Army knife in the form of converted quarterback Seth Green. As for what he converted to, I’m not exactly sure. Tight end? Wide receiver? Running back? The redshirt sophomore was utilized frequently in the wildcat offense, rushing for 283 yards on 76 carries and scoring eight rushing touchdowns. Green also completed 4-of-5 pass attempts for 36 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception.

The offensive line was a liability for the first half of the season, especially in pass protection. The Minnesota Moving Co. surrendered 13 total sacks through the first five games (or 2.6 sacks per game), which led the coaching staff to replace Sam Schlueter at left tackle with true freshman Daniel Faalele. The Gophers gave up 14 sacks over the final eight games of the season (1.75 sacks per game) and also saw gains in their rushing attack, averaging 187 rushing yards per game compared to 145 in those first five games.

Minnesota also averaged 28.9 points per game, compared to 22 points per game in 2017.

Of the 21 different offensive players to start at least one game this season for the Gophers, 16 of them were either freshmen or sophomores.

Grade: B+

Defense

This was a unit that came into the season returning eight starters, including upperclassmen Antoine Winfield, Jr., Carter Coughlin, Thomas Barber, Antonio Shenault, Kamal Martin, and Gary Moore. Replacing departed starters Jonathan Celestin, Steven Richardson, and Duke McGhee were Blake Cashman, O.J. Smith, and Jacob Huff, respectively.

Yet somehow defensive coordinator Robb Smith managed to make a mess of it.

Losing Antoine Winfield Jr. for a second consecutive season — and against Maryland, again — didn’t help, but losing one player, no matter how good, is no excuse for the product that Smith put on the field. As he did in his first season at Minnesota, Smith was able to pull the wool over our eyes in the nonconference slate, before falling apart against Big Ten competition.

In the six Big Ten conference games before he was fired, Smith’s defense allowed an average of 246 rushing yards, 261 passing yards, and 43 points per game.

And unlike the offensive side of the ball, youth was not an excuse. Of the 18 different defensive players to start at least one game this season for the Gophers, only four of them were freshmen or sophomores. There was talent and experience on defense — as was later proven when Joe Rossi took over, but more on that minute — but the players were not being put in a position to succeed.

Smith was simply in over his head. Fleck bears responsibility for his hire, which effectively put him behind the eight ball after nearly two seasons of staggering incompetence.

Conversely, credit Fleck for firing Smith midseason, because cutting him loose and promoting defensive line coach Joe Rossi may have saved the Gophers’ season.

The turnaround under Rossi was immediate and remarkable.

As interim defensive coordinator, Rossi simplified the defense to allow the players to play “sound, simple, and fast,” but also showed some creativity in mixing up formations, disguising coverages, and dialing up calculated twists and blitzes to keep opposing offenses off balance. Cashman was the most noticeable beneficiary of the Gophers’ new defensive coordinator, at one point racking up a TCF Bank Stadium-record 20 tackles against Northwestern.

In four games under Rossi, the Gopher defense allowed an average of 139.8 rushing yards, 160.3 passing yards, and 14.8 points per game. That includes holding Purdue to 145 passing yards (well below their season average of 317.8 passing yards per game), limiting Wisconsin to 170 rushing yards (well below their season average of 227.4 rushing yards per game), and smothering Georgia Tech’s top-ranked rushing attack to the tune of 206 rushing yards (well below their season average of 334.9 rushing yards per game).

Rossi’s defense was especially impressive on third downs. In the final four games of the season, opposing offenses were 12-for-50 on third down. Spread out over a full season, that 24 percent conversion rate would rank as the second best in the nation, defensively.

I’m not at all surprised Fleck named him permanent defensive coordinator.

Grade (under Robb Smith): D+
Grade (under Joe Rossi): A-

Special Teams

Senior kicker Emmit Carpenter was 17-for-23 on field goal attempts. His 73.9 percent conversation rate was well below his career-best 91.7 percent as a sophomore, but a slight improvement over last year’s 70 percent conversion rate. It was a bit of an inconsistent season for Carpenter, as he missed field goal attempts of 28, 32, 38, 40, and 49 yards, yet nailed two 50+ yard field goals against Fresno State. He was also 43-of-43 on point after attempts.

First-year starting punter Jacob Herbers ranked 63rd nationally, averaging 41.2 yards per punt. Of his 51 punts, 18 were downed inside the 20, including eight inside the 10-yard line. His longest punt of the season — and a career best — was 58 yards, a feat he first recorded against Nebraska before later repeating against Northwestern.

(The following rankings are from the end of the regular season, since the NCAA does not update their stats to include the postseason until after bowl season has been completed.)

Minnesota tied for 62nd nationally in kickoff return defense, allowing an average of 20.6 yards per kickoff return, with 27 returns and 31 touchbacks. Conversely, the Gophers featured one of the best kickoff return units in the country, averaging 23.4 yards per return and ranking 27th nationally. Demetrius Douglas was their top returner, accumulating 594 total yards on 24 kickoff returns.

On punt returns, Minnesota ranked 3rd in the country, limiting opposing punt returners to a minuscule 1.11 yards per return. Nine punt returns on the season combined to net a total of 10 yards. The Gophers also featured the top-ranked punt return unit in the country, averaging 22.25 yards per punt return. Douglas and Antoine Winfield, Jr. both had punt returns for touchdowns.

Grade: B+

Recruiting

Last year, the coaching staff brought in a recruiting class that ranked 38th nationally and 7th in the Big Ten. Most of the class was able to redshirt this season, but offensive tackle Daniel Faalele, wide receiver Rashod Bateman, defensive tackle Jamaal Teague, running back Bryce Williams, and cornerback Terell Smith were among the freshmen who became key contributors.

At the start of the Early Signing Period back on Dec. 19, Fleck and co. signed a class of 21 recruits. According to 247 Sports, the class ranks 37th nationally and 8th in the Big Ten. The obvious emphasis was on defensive line and defensive back, as the coaching staff recruited one JUCO defensive tackle, two high school defensive tackles, two high school defensive ends, one JUCO defensive back, and two high school defensive backs.

It’s one of the best recruiting classes at Minnesota in the internet era, so it is clear to me that Fleck and co. are taking recruiting to a new level here. But the Gophers’ class still ended up in the middle-of-the-pack in the Big Ten, so there is room to grow. I do think there is more meat on the bone in the midsection of this class, especially compared to previous recruiting classes. It feels like the floor of this class was the ceiling for the previous coaching regime.

But ultimately the verdict will be decided on the field in the coming years. I generally take the ratings from recruiting services with a grain of salt. It’s certainly a good sign that evaluators see a lot of potential among the players that signed with Minnesota. We’ll see what the future holds in store for them at the University of Minnesota.

Grade: B

Poll

How would you grade Year 2 of the P.J. Fleck era?

This poll is closed

  • 19%
    A
    (305 votes)
  • 68%
    B
    (1073 votes)
  • 10%
    C
    (171 votes)
  • 0%
    D
    (11 votes)
  • 0%
    F
    (9 votes)
1569 votes total Vote Now