Gopher Football is entering year 2 of the PJ Fleck Era with the season kicking off on Thurday night. That means this is game week!
Excitement rules in late August for college football fans and there’s no reason Gopher fans cannot also be excited. But it is also time for the Monday Perspective and the MP loves to talk about expectations. It is really what drives fan bases and is what ultimately determines the success or failure of a given game/season/tenure.
So I’m here to talk about expectations for year 2 of PJ Fleck, and maybe even touch on beyond.
How about we start with the coach. Every single time that PJ Fleck has had a microphone and an audience he is happy to tell people about the overall youth of this roster. Due to how it was constructed by the previous staffs and due to the nature of players leaving amidst coaching changes, this roster is light on upper classmen on their two-deep. This is a true statement.
More specifically this team has two quarterbacks who have combined for exactly 0 snaps at the collegiate level. The starter’s job was won by Zack Annexstad. But the part that should give us all pause is the fact that he is going to be only the second walk-on, true freshman quarterback to start for a Power-5 team in the history of NCAA Football.
That’s the most important position on the field and your starter has never played at this level. His backup? Redshirted, but also has never played in a game at this level. Youth clearly permeates this roster. There’s no need to get into specifics, the point is that there are a lot of freshmen who are going to play this year. A lot of sophomores are going to play this year and very few seniors, on either side of the ball.
So with all of this youth, particularly at quarterback, what can we expect in 2018?
Well, I firmly believe that year 2 of a coaching change is one where the entire program moves from essentially being a freshman to a sophomore. Meaning every single player on the roster last year was essentially a freshman in some ways. Once again these kids were learning new terminology, learning how to manage the expectations of their new coaches, learning what those expectations were, learning new playbooks, learning new philosophies and perhaps being taught entirely different techniques at some positions.
Now all of those little nuances are known and the players can begin to play football at a faster speed, they can absorb concepts/plays faster because most of them already know the fundamentals of their position and what is expected of them. Year one was baby steps, year two is when they can begin to show improvement on the field.
Look back at the last 4 new coaching staffs at Minnesota, they combined to average over a 4-win improvement in their second seasons. None of them began their first season with 5 wins, like Fleck did. But all improved.
I expect that this team will be improved. The product you will see on the field will be more polished and able to play with focus because they are mentally a year ahead of where they were a year ago. Will that translate to more wins?
I think so, but not by much. What should really show through is a level of competitiveness with higher quality opponents and perhaps the ability to win close games. But this team is not nearly a finished product. We are taking baby steps towards being a really good program. This year will be better, but not by a lot.
I fully expect a 6-6 season, but it is entirely possible to finish 5-7 again this year and still be a better team.
As I let my wandering eyes gaze into the future...that’s when I can let myself get very excited. And I can convince myself that things are looking rosy down the road. But for now, I’m sticking with 2018.
Expectations? This team will be better. But the goal here is to build something that sustains success. 2018 is not the year we see that goal coming to fruition. This team will make mistakes and there will be times of frustration. But it will be better and the hope is that it continues to do so.
Enjoy the season, Gopher fans!