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Minnesota Football: Evaluating Year 4 of the P.J. Fleck era

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Making sense of a roller coaster season to forget

Minnesota v Maryland Photo by G Fiume/Maryland Terrapins/Getty Images

To be completely honest, I’m not entirely sure how to grade this season. I’m not going to grade it like a normal season, because it was anything but. In fact, I’m not going to grade it at all.

Instead, I think a more nuanced approach would be to take the biggest questions we had coming into the season and evaluate the answers we got, if any.

What kind of impact will COVID have on the Gophers’ season?

COVID-19 first impacted the Gophers’ season back in mid-March, when the coronavirus brought spring football practices across the country to a halt.

Here is a timeline of COVID-related events:

  • March 3, 2020: The Gophers hold their first spring practice.
  • March 13, 2020: After only four spring practices, Minnesota is forced to take an indefinite hiatus after the Big Ten cancels all spring athletic competition and suspends all organized team activities. All athletic facilities are closed and student-athletes are sent home to complete the academic semester through distance learning.
  • June 12, 2020: Three months after the initial decision to suspend all team activities, Minnesota is cleared to invite student-athletes back to campus for voluntary summer workouts.
  • July 9, 2020: The Big Ten announces the elimination of non-conference matchups for all fall athletics, limiting member teams to conference-only schedules.
  • August 4, 2020: Rashod Bateman announces via Twitter that he is opting out of the fall 2020 season to prepare for the 2021 NFL Draft, citing “uncertainty around health and safety.” It was not public knowledge at the time, but Bateman had tested positive for COVID-19 over the summer and would later admit that that experience factored into his initial decision.
  • August 5, 2020: The Big Ten releases their conference-only fall football schedules.
  • August 11, 2020: The Big Ten announces that the fall 2020 football season has been cancelled due to “ongoing health and safety concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” leaving open the possibility of a spring season.
  • September 16, 2020: The Big Ten reverses their decision to cancel the fall 2020 football season, announcing a nine-game season with a start date of October 24 and citing the availability of daily antigen testing, enhanced cardiac screenings, and an enhanced data-driven approach to making decisions about practice and/or competition.
  • September 30, 2020: The NCAA grants Rashod Bateman a waiver restoring his eligibility and allowing him to return to the team for the fall season.
  • October 24, 2020: Minnesota opens the season without starting right tackle Daniel Faalele, who opted out due to COVID concerns. The Gophers also take the field against Michigan without starting kicker Michael Lantz, starting kickoff specialist Dragan Kesich, and starting punter Mark Crawford due to COVID testing and contact tracing. Lantz would return the following week, and Kesich and Crawford would both miss another game.
  • November 5, 2020: Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi tests positive for COVID and is not able to participate in the Illinois game. Joe Harasymiak takes over play-calling duties.
  • November 7, 2020: Starting defensive tackle Keonte Schad is unavailable for the Illinois game after testing positive for COVID-19. He would miss three games total.
  • November 20, 2020: Minnesota is forced to compete against Purdue with a total of 22 players unavailable due to a combination of positive COVID-19 tests, contact tracing, opt-outs, and injuries. Schad, starting rush end Boye Mafe, starting cornerback Benjamin St.-Juste, and defensive tackle Rashad Cheney are among the key players sidelined.
  • November 24, 2020: Minnesota pauses all team activities and cancels the Wisconsin game due to a COVID outbreak within the program.
  • November 25, 2020: Rashod Bateman opts out of the rest of the season.
  • November 30, 2020: Minnesota cancels the Northwestern game and all team activities remain paused. A total of 47 individuals — 21 student-athletes and 26 staff members — have tested positive for COVID-19 since November 19.
  • December 2, 2020: Minnesota is cleared to begin light workouts.
  • December 12, 2020: Minnesota competes against Nebraska with a total of 33 players unavailable due to a combination of positive COVID-19 tests, contact tracing, opt-outs, and injuries. The Gophers are missing starting center John Michael Schmitz and starting left guard Axel Ruschmeyer and have only four defensive tackles and two tight ends available.

I hope you are as exhausted reading that as I felt writing it.

And that timeline is limited to the events that were made public. Fleck hinted at players missing practices due to COVID-19 testing and contract tracing, and there have been reports of players who were slowed by lingering side effects from COVID. Fans tend to focus on starters when it comes to players missing time, but it also makes it difficult to practice effectively when scout team players are sidelined. Couple that with the fact that coaching staffs were already having to re-organize practices to allow for social distancing and limit contact between groups of players.

Fleck would be the first person to tell you that these challenges were not exclusive to Minnesota. Some programs were able to weather the storm better than others. While each coaching staff is ultimately accountable for the results on the field and the wins and losses still count, personally I have a hard time putting much stock into the season considering the circumstances.

And don’t overlook the mental health aspect of this year. I mean, can you really blame the nine Big Ten teams, including Minnesota, who threw in the towel at the end of the regular season and pre-emptively declined a bowl game invitation? That trend should tell you a lot.

How will Minnesota replace seven starters on defense?

The Gophers lost safety Antoine Winfield Jr., rush end Carter Coughlin, linebacker Kamal Martin, and cornerback Chris Williamson to the NFL and graduated linebacker Thomas Barber, defensive tackle Sam Renner, and defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere. Of those seven starters, only one was recruited to Minnesota by Fleck. So not only would the Gophers need to replace a considerable amount of production on the defensive side of the ball, but it would also be a test of Fleck’s recruiting acumen, with his recruits stepping into starting roles.

Put simply, test failed.

Minnesota finished the season ranked 102nd nationally in rushing defense (207.1 yards allowed per game), 36th in passing defense (208.7 yards allowed per game), and 70th in scoring defense (30.1 points allowed per game). I will concede that the defense improved as the season went along, but I’m not going to look past how poorly they played at times.

What went wrong? It depends on who you ask. If you ask some of our commenters, they will tell you that some of the players on the Gophers’ defense simply are not Division I-caliber athletes. If you ask P.J. Fleck, he’ll explain to you that Minnesota is a developmental program, and that this season’s struggles on the defensive side of the ball were largely the product of new starters lacking much-needed game experience. And let me tell you, if Fleck and co. can’t identify Division I talent on the recruiting trail, they’d be better off in another line of work.

So I am inclined to agree with Fleck — with the caveat that I expect to see substantial improvement next season. The Gophers’ biggest problem was at linebacker, where even Mariano Sori-Marin — the de facto veteran of the group — looked lost at times. Youth and inexperience doomed a group that struggled to play fast, shed blocks, and plug gaps for much of the season.

Again though, it is impossible to know whether this defense would have played as poorly had they been afforded a normal offseason. The good news is they have nowhere to go but up, really.

How much will the offense change under new co-coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.?

I’m not as down on Mike Sanford Jr. as everyone else seems to be.

Let’s take a moment to compare the 2019 offense and the 2020 offense, shall we?

2019-20 Minnesota Offense Comparison

Stat 2019 2020
Stat 2019 2020
Rushing Offense 178.7 YPG 191.9 YPG
Passing Offense 253.3 YPG 201.3 YPG
Total Offense 432 YPG 393.1 YPG
Scoring Offense 34.1 PPG 27.3 PPG

Rushing yards per game went up 13.2 yards. Passing yards per game went down 52 yards. And Minnesota’s scoring average dropped by about a touchdown.

When you consider that the Gophers lost All-Big Ten wide receiver Tyler Johnson to the NFL, were without two of their starters on the offensive line, and only had a COVID-disrupted offseason to get acclimated to their new offensive co-coordinators, I’m okay with that production.

But it was anything but smooth sailing, obviously. The RPO plays that were the Gophers’ bread and butter in 2019 were replaced by more traditional play-action passes, and Tanner Morgan looked uncomfortable with his pre- and post-snap reads early in the season. The route combinations left much to be desired, often failing to take advantage of Rashod Bateman’s ability to take the top off the defense. Then there was the ultra-conservative fourth quarter play-calling that cost Minnesota the Maryland game and nearly cost them the game against Purdue.

Gopher fans’ chief concern with Sanford seems to be his effect on Morgan. Minnesota’s starting quarterback ended the season with 1,374 passing yards, 7 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions and completed 57.9 percent of his passes (106-of-183), a far cry from his record-breaking season a year ago. At various points throughout the season, Morgan was guilty of staring down receivers, rather than go through his progressions, and made ill-advised throws into coverage. There were certainly contributing factors outside his control, but he has work to do in the offseason.

TL;DR: I’m not giving up on Morgan, and I saw enough from Sanford that I am comfortable with him returning next season. I believe he deserves a chance to show what he can do with a full offseason of practice and preparation. Don’t forget, the Gophers boasted one of the best rushing attacks in the Big Ten, if not the country. While much of that was due to Mohamed Ibrahim, Sanford deserves credit for both the failures and the successes.

Can Minnesota sustain success?

I think we can table this question until next season, when perhaps the college football season won’t be operating under the cloud of COVID, but the 2020 season certainly inspired more skepticism than confidence. If you believe in the concept of momentum, Minnesota effectively came to a screeching halt less than a year removed from the program’s first 11-win season since 1904. Fielding one of the worst defenses in college football will have that effect.

Was 2020 an aberration? Maybe. Probably. Time will ultimately deliver that verdict. The problem for Fleck is that the 2020 season invites people to doubt him. He gave an impassioned speech after the loss to Wisconsin in 2019 instructing Gopher fans to let go of their past perceptions of the program, but the 2020 season will have only enforced that perception for a number of fans. For them, seeing is believing, and Fleck showed them nothing they haven’t seen before.

So now all eyes turn to next season. Improvement over 2020 is an absolute must and should not be all that difficult considering the low bar the team must clear. And Fleck will need to remove “youth” and “inexperience” from his vocabulary considering how much experience the Gophers will return next year. No more excuses. If Minnesota does not return to being competitive in the Big Ten West next season, Fleck may start to feel his seat warming.


Closing Thoughts

I’m not putting much stock into this season, if you hadn’t picked that up already. It was a mess from start to finish for at least 75 percent of college football programs. Minnesota needs to get to back on track on next season, but I’m keeping my oar in the water until then.