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Minnesota Football: Gophers’ offense opens fall camp striving for balance

P.J. Fleck needs his offense to do whatever they need to do to win games

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Guaranteed Rate Bowl - West Virginia v Minnesota Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Three stats tell the tale of the Minnesota offense last season. The Gophers ranked:

  • 8th in the country in rushing attempts
  • 127th in the country in passing attempts
  • 3rd in the country in time of possession

“We had to make the game shorter, we had to run the ball a little more, we had to do what we had to do to find ways to win games,” head coach P.J. Fleck said at Big Ten Media Days.

“And we still won nine games.”

Winning nine games is no small feat at Minnesota. It’s only been done 10 times in program history, twice under Fleck. But few fans were willing to give the Gophers credit for winning nine games with a one-dimensional offense. Instead, many of them were left wondering how many more games Minnesota could have won with a more balanced offense.

Clearly Fleck himself was not satisfied, firing offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. at the conclusion of the regular season. He later admitted to spending more time in the offensive room last year than at any other point in his 10 years of being a head coach.

To right the ship, Fleck turned to a name he can trust, bringing back former offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca two years after he left to take the same position at Penn State. In his last season with the Gophers, Ciarrocca led an offense that ranked 21st in the country in scoring.

Most importantly, Fleck won’t have to spend as much time in the offensive room this fall because he and Ciarrocca share an understanding of how to bring a balanced offense to Minnesota.

“Doing what it takes to win football games,” Fleck explained when asked to define what “balance” means for his offense, eschewing the notion that it means rushing or passing for a certain amount of yards. “If we need to throw for 350 [yards], we have to be able to throw for 350 [yards]. If we have to run for 350 [yards] to win, then we have to find a way to run for 350 [yards].”

“Balance to me means you do exactly what you have to do to win that game, and have the ability to do that on a weekly basis.”

To do that, the Gophers will need more consistency from veteran quarterback Tanner Morgan, who enters his fifth year as starting quarterback. He set single-season school records for passing yards (3,253), passing touchdowns (30), completion percentage (66.0%), passing yards per game (250.2), and pass efficiency rating (178.7) under Ciarrocca, but struggled mightily in the two seasons Sanford served as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Morgan will operate behind an offensive line that returns one starter from a season ago. The vacant starting spots seemed to sort themselves out in the spring, with the exception of the right tackle position, where Fleck expects a “big competition” this fall between redshirt sophomore Martes Lewis, redshirt junior J.J. Guedet, and Notre Dame transfer Quinn Carroll.

Ciarrocca and wide receivers coach Matt Simon also have their work cut out at wide receiver, where Chris Autman-Bell leads a group of pass catchers who had their own struggle with consistency last season. Dylan Wright, a former Texas A&M transfer, is a perfect example. After hauling in five receptions for 57 receiving yards and one touchdown in the season opener, Wright finished the year with 18 receptions for 365 receiving yards and two touchdowns.

But Fleck believes he is ready to take the next step.

“I know he’s done all the unrequired stuff, and he’s not doing it to just do it. He’s doing it to actually get a result,” Fleck said. “He’s truly embracing the process of growth.”

He shared an anecdote from the spring, when he saw Wright make an impressive catch in practice and confused him by coming up to him and challenging him.

“I was talking very firmly to him about how good he can be and why doesn’t this happen all the time. This is how good you can be, but you have to be able to see it. And he’s been able to see it.”

Gopher fans hopefully won’t have to wait much longer to see for themselves.