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Minnesota Football: P.J. Fleck Press Conference Recap

Highlights from the head coach’s presser as the Golden Gophers start spring practice

NCAA Football: Big Ten Media Days Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Head coach P.J. Fleck kicked off spring practice with a press conference this morning. We have the highlights below, if you’re more of a reader. The video is available on Facebook.

Youth

Fleck made mention of the fact that 77 percent of the roster is either an underclassman or has been in the program two years or less. There is a natural attrition from Year 1 to Year 2, when you finally have depth and/or pieces with which to work. He excited about the depth, in spite of their youth, and is looking forward to competition at several positions.

Early Enrollees

“You can see the difference.” Fleck emphasized that the early enrollees are some of the first players who bought into their culture from a recruiting standpoint, whereas their first recruiting class was assembled in a matter of weeks.

Quarterbacks

The Gophers’ starting quarterback for the fall, whomever that may be, will not have thrown a collegiate pass -- and Fleck is excited about that.

The candidates:

  • Redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan. He has had an exceptional offseason, according to Fleck, and is a natural leader. Morgan isn’t the biggest or the strongest, but he has that “it” factor. He is a natural born winner.
  • Redshirt sophomore Seth Green. Fleck considers Green to be “one of the better athletes on the team,” but questions whether he is going to be a quarterback. “We’re going to find out in the spring.” Needs to improve his decision-making and accuracy.
  • Redshirt sophomore Vic Viramontes. Fleck has not seen Viramontes throw a pass yet, aside from what he has seen on film. Excited about his athleticism.
  • Freshman walk-on and early enrollee Zack Annexstad was also mentioned.

“It’s going to be fun.”

Running Backs

As we reported earlier, senior Shannon Brooks has been ruled out for next season after suffering a non-contact leg injury during winter conditioning. He will undergo surgery this spring, but is expected to return for the 2019 season after redshirting this fall.

Everyone knows what senior Rodney Smith can do, but the rest of the running backs on the roster are unproven. Fleck is looking to have “a pair and a spare” again.

Wide Receivers

Fleck talked about wanting to see more leadership out of junior Tyler Johnson, who will be the elder statesman of the wide receiver corps. He’ll be counted on to mentor the likes of redshirt freshmen Demetrius Douglas and Chris Autman-Bell and true freshman Rashod Bateman. Fleck mentioned those three specifically as wide receivers he’ll be counting on to contribute next season. Autman-Bell, specifically, had the best training camp of any wide receiver last season, according to Fleck, before he was lost for the season with a foot injury.

It’s a position group with plenty of talent but a lack of game experience.

Offensive Line

Everyone remembers spring practice last year, when the Gophers had four scholarship offensive linemen available. Fleck is relieved that that is not the case again this year, with at least 13 offensive linemen available for the spring.

Redshirt senior Jared Weyler is back as the favorite to start at center, but don’t count out redshirt freshman John Michael Schmitz. Fleck believes he’ll be one of the better offensive lineman for the Gophers’ moving forward. Redshirt sophomore left guard Conner Olson has had the best offseason of any lineman on the roster, according to Fleck.

Look for redshirt freshman Blaise Andries at right guard.

At offensive tackle, redshirt sophomore Sam Schlueter has had a “phenomenal” offseason. Redshirt senior left tackle Donnell Greene has already recovered from offseason surgery and will be available for spring practice.

True freshman Daniel Faalele could end up at either guard or tackle, but Fleck would prefer him at guard. We’ll see. Faalele, Curtis Dunlap, Jr., and Nathan Boe have come in as freshmen and impressed Fleck and co. They’ve worked hard and commanded respect from their teammates. Faalele also apparently dominated the spring conditioning “tug-of-wars.”

Defensive Line

Juniors Carter Coughlin and Tai’yon Devers will continue in their hybrid role at the “R” position, which Fleck describes as a “glorified outside linebacker” who can drop into coverage, blitz, and stop the run. Redshirt freshman Esezi Otomewo and redshirt junior Sam Renner were names mentioned at the opposite end of the defensive line, especially now that sophomore Nate Umlor is moving inside to defensive tackle.

Fleck is excited about the defensive line. Redshirt junior defensive tackle Royal Silver evidently crushed it in the weight room, although it sounds like both lines as a whole have improved dramatically in their strength and conditioning this offseason.

Fleck is not oblivious to the fact that “performance on the [defensive line] has to improve dramatically,” but believes that the additions of defensive line coach Joe Rossi and pass rush specialist coach Marcus West can get it done.

Linebackers

Early enrollee Thomas Rush is going to play, according to Fleck. He was effusive in his praise for the true freshman. Senior Blake Cashman and junior Thomas Barber will not be available this spring while recovering from offseason surgery.

You’ll see more creativity on defense with more options with which to work, including incoming freshmen. Fleck mentioned Coughlin and junior Kamal Martin as two specific players who are versatile enough to move around a lot on defense.

Defensive Backs

It’s no secret the Gophers are thin in the secondary, and that means that all four incoming freshman defensive backs will see the field.

At cornerback, redshirt sophomore Kiondre Thomas is a player who wasn’t bought in to the culture last year, but has turned a corner this offseason. Fleck is confident Thomas is going to have a tremendous season this fall. “You can feel it.”

Senior Antonio Shenault and redshirt sophomore Antoine Winfield, Jr. will “cross train” to play cornerback, safety, and nickel. Both will move around a lot.

Sophomore Justus Harris “probably shouldn’t have played last year,” but he’ll reap the benefits from that experience. Junior Coney Durr is finally healthy.

Senior Jacob Huff is a playmaker, but redshirt freshman Adam Beck and reshirt sophomore Calvin Swenson will also need to contribute at safety this fall.