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Minnesota Football: Gophers need to build trust in the passing game

Proof, consistency, and time are all needed

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Penn State Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

P.J. Fleck has said before that building trust comes down to three things:

  • Proof
  • Consistency
  • Time

First, can you do it? Then once you’ve done it, can you do it consistently? And how long can you maintain that consistency? Right now, the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ passing game can’t check any of those boxes, and that is a problem for Fleck and co.

Three years ago, quarterback Tanner Morgan broke single-season program records for passing yards and passing touchdowns, and Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman became the first teammates to be named First-Team All-Big Ten in the same season.

But 2019 might as well be ancient history. Since that record-setting season, the Gophers’ air attack has been grounded, ranking near the bottom of the country in passing offense each of the last three seasons. Fleck even brought back offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, the architect of the 2019 offense, this year to refuel the passing game, but the results have been the same.

Minnesota Passing Offense Stats 2020-22

Category 2020 2021 2022
Category 2020 2021 2022
Passing Offense 199.1 YPG (92nd) 162 YPG (118th) 182.5 YPG (118th)
Team Passing Efficiency 128.91 (74th) 136.38 (69th) 135.16 (67th)

Before Ciarrocca was rehired, many laid the blame at the feet of former offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. Others have pointed the finger at Morgan, a fifth-year starter who operated the RPO offense to perfection in 2019 but has since plateaued and even declined in the eyes of some fans.

This season, in particular, has laid bare a lack of talent at the wide receiver position. To understand how Minnesota finds itself in this position, all you have to do is look at their recruiting.

Since Fleck was hired, Minnesota has signed 17 wide receivers out of high school:

  • One is playing in the NFL (Rashod Bateman)
  • One retired from the sport of football (Demetrius Douglas)
  • Two medically retired (Jornell Brooks and Erik Gibson)
  • Six have transferred to another program (Harrison Van Dyne, Nnamdi Adim-Madumere, Jonathan Mann, Douglas Emilien, Brady Boyd, and Dylan McGill)
  • The remaining seven currently constitute the Gophers’ wide receiver room, in addition to Texas A&M transfer Dylan Wright and former walk-on Clay Geary: Chris Autman-Bell, Mike Brown-Stephens, Daniel Jackson, Le’Meke Brockington, Dino Kaliakmanis, Ike White, and Kristen Hoskins

You could charitably say Fleck and wide receivers coach Matt Simon are batting .471, if you’re only counting the three retirements and six transfers against them. But that would be ignoring the fact that the wide receivers they’ve managed to keep on the roster aren’t getting it done.

If you look at the wide receivers that have transferred out, none of them have made much of an impact, if any, at their next destination. To me, that says Fleck and Simon are swinging and missing when evaluating these players as high school prospects.

Even if Fleck and Simon are able to adjust their evaluations of wide receiver prospects, the challenge then becomes trust. As I pointed out earlier, trust requires proof, consistency, and time. Based on the last three seasons, wide receiver prospects have no reason to trust the Gophers’ passing game. It becomes a “chicken or the egg” scenario. You need more talented wide receivers to improve your passing game, but you need to improve your passing game first to sell those more talented wide receivers on the opportunity to thrive in your offense.

The good new is that Fleck is likely well aware of the Gophers’ issues at wide receiver, and he is getting paid $5 million annually to fix them. I expect him to be active in the transfer portal this offseason as he searches for impact wide receivers to give quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis more to work with next year. But it may also be worth having a conversation with Simon to figure out how they got to this point — and how they can avoid making the same mistakes moving forward.