Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck was made available to the media via Zoom on Friday evening after the team completed their first day of fall training camp. He opened by expressing his gratitude for the University of Minnesota medical staff for their leadership and for going “above and beyond,” before opening it up for questions.
Here are the highlights:
Building a bubble around the program
Fleck said that this fall’s training camp will bear little to no resemblance to the up-tempo fall practices from his previous years at Minnesota. He stressed that their top priority is the health and safety of their student-athletes, and that all workouts and practices have been structured to abide by state and federal public health guidelines, in addition to the standards and policies put forth by the University of Minnesota, the Big Ten, and the NCAA.
A point of emphasis for Fleck was that everything is fluid, from their practice schedule to whether the season’s games will even be played. They don’t even have plans to wear pads for at least another week, and they may even push that back. Flexibility in everything they do is essential. He admitted that it is impossible to eliminate all risk, but it the responsibility of the coaching staff and the medical staff to limit the amount of risk for their players every single day.
As for how exactly he and the coaching staff plan to minimize the amount of risk, Fleck stresses the need to create a bubble. They don’t have the luxury of building an actual $150 million bubble like the NBA, so it becomes more about instilling a bubble-like mentality in the players. They’ve even plastered the football facility with images of bubbles and — I kid you not — brought in bubble guns and bubble machines to reinforce that thinking.
Some of the changes they have implemented:
- Team meetings held at TCF Bank Stadium to spread everyone out
- Standing six feet apart when performing individual drills in practice
- Different types of face shields have been made available to players to test out, including cloth gaiter masks, ski masks (made from a bamboo-type material) that cover everything but the eyes, and helmets with full-face visors
- Different rooms have been re-purposed as meeting rooms to keep groups small
- Smaller weight-lifting groups
- Use of multiple practice fields
- Splitting up the team into different groups to practice at different times
Fleck said that at no point this offseason have they had to pause workouts due to a COVID-19 outbreak, and stated that there are currently zero positive cases as the team enters fall camp.
Players empowered to make the choice
Fleck has made it clear to the players that each of them has to evaluate the risk at hand and make a decision for themselves whether to participate this season or opt out.
“It’s not for me to judge whether you should play or not,” Fleck said. “And we’re going to support you no matter what decision you make.”
Filling the void at wide receiver
The program lost two All-Big Ten wide receivers this offseason, and Fleck is very aware that the challenge ahead of him is to replace 78% of the team’s receiving production from a year ago.
His message to the players: “Next man up.”
“We recruit a lot of confident players. And sometimes when a guy like Rashod Bateman moves on, they know that there is, like I said, 78 percent of our catches [from last season] are out there to be caught by someone. And they’re all competitors, they’re all confident, and they all think [the passes] should come to them. And that’s a good problem to have,” Fleck said, adding that this group’s combination of confidence and selflessness is an asset to the team.
He also made a point early in the call to mention that co-offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. has a track record of incorporating the tight end into the passing game, so all signs continue to point to more receptions for Jake Paulson, Brevyn Spann-Ford, and co.
Reloading the Gopher defense
“I don’t think ‘stress’ is in Joe Rossi’s vocabulary,” Fleck said when asked how the Gophers’ detail-oriented defensive coordinator is dealing with having to replace seven starters from last season during a fall camp that will be certainly unlike any other.
He described last year’s defense as a tight-knit group with players like Antoine Winfield Jr., Thomas Barber, and Chris Williamson providing great leadership, but he is excited to see what their replacements can do. He likened the departures — and the opportunities they create for younger players to step into bigger roles — to “opening a jar” and letting the grasshopper out.
The rare injury update
Fleck tends to be evasive when it comes to talking about injuries, but the Pioneer Press’s Andy Greder pressed him during the Zoom call about the status of running back Cam Wiley and linebacker Braelen Oliver. He confirmed that Wiley is practicing, but Oliver is not.
Wiley was banged up returning a kickoff against Wisconsin last season, and Oliver reportedly suffered a lower body injury during spring practice.