Before he arrived on campus for a visit in December, Charlotte wide receiver Elijah Spencer had only interacted with Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck via FaceTime. When the two sat down together in Fleck’s office for their first face-to-face meeting, Spencer had one question:
“What do you know about me?”
Recounting this story at his Signing Day press conference, Fleck admitted his initial impression of Spencer relied upon the word of former Minnesota defensive line coach Marcus West, who spent three seasons as assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator at Charlotte, and Jenna Thompson, Minnesota’s director of on-campus recruiting and a Charlotte alum.
“I told him what I knew and what I was told,” Fleck said of his response to Spencer’s question. “But I didn’t really know it because I haven’t experienced it yet.”
Gopher fans are in a similar situation. They know Spencer was named Conference USA Freshman of the Year as a true freshman and led the 49ers this season with 57 receptions, 943 receiving yards, and nine touchdowns. But they haven’t seen it for themselves yet.
Spencer will be one of a handful of new faces on offense for the Gophers this fall.
There is also Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Crooms, who was the Broncos’ leading receiver this season with 57 receptions, 814 receiving yards, and five touchdowns. Running back Sean Tyler, another Western Michigan transfer, recently flipped his commitment from Oklahoma State to Minnesota. He has rushed for 1,000+ yards in each of the last two seasons.
This offseason was always going to be a transition period for the Gopher offense. Quarterback Tanner Morgan has finally exhausted his eligibility after starting 47 games over the last five years, and running back Mohamed Ibrahim is off to the NFL after rewriting the program’s career and single-season rushing records. The last vestige of their era at Minnesota is perhaps wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, who will be returning for a seventh year after applying for a medical redshirt.
The loss of Ibrahim looms the largest. He was the engine that powered the Gophers’ offense this season, and Minnesota often struggled to the move the ball when it wasn’t in his hands. Ibrahim averaged 26.6 carries and 138.8 rushing yards per game, the latter mark ranking second among all FBS running backs. The Gophers’ air attack paled in comparison to their ground game, ranking 12th nationally in passing attempts and 116th in passing yards per game.
There are those who believe the Gophers relied too much on Ibrahim, making the offense one-dimensional and allowing other aspects of the offense to atrophy. But there are also those who had no problem with turning a once-in-a-generation running back into a workhorse.
The debate is moot at this point, because the reality is that Ibrahim is gone. That has forced Minnesota to adapt their offensive approach, starting with the wide receiver position.
“We’ve got to be able to be way more productive at the wide receiver position,” Fleck said on Signing Day. “We need to make it way more competitive in that room.”
With the additions of Spencer and Crooms, Minnesota has certainly turned up the heat. The Gophers have not had a pass catcher reach 600 receiving yards in any of the last three seasons. Daniel Jackson came close this year with 37 receptions for 557 receiving yards, and he looks primed to lead the wide receiver corps alongside Spencer and Crooms. Le’Meke Brockington, Dylan Wright, and Chris Autman-Bell also figure to be in the mix. But even with all those wide receivers returning, Fleck clearly understands the status quo isn’t going to cut it next season.
It also helps that the Gophers have a legitimate talent at quarterback. Athan Kaliakmanis, a former four-star prospect, turned heads this season when he saw action in place of an injured Tanner Morgan, first in sparking a second-half comeback against Nebraska and later in throwing for 319 passing yards and two touchdowns in a rivalry win over Wisconsin.
“He’s so darn athletic,” Fleck said of Kaliakmanis after the win over Nebraska. “And he’s long and can extend the rides. He’s got a huge arm and he’s really intelligent. He’s fun.”
The final piece of the puzzle is wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Matt Simon, who will finally get his opportunity to call plays after the departure of previous offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. It’s been no secret that Simon has had ambitions to become an offensive coordinator, and he will be eager to put his stamp on the Gophers’ offense.
It may be difficult for some Gopher fans to believe that the offense is going to look much different next season. After all, Fleck is still the head coach, and his offensive philosophy has tended to favor a dominant ground game that can control the clock. But he didn’t recruit Kaliakmanis because of how well he hands the ball to the running back, and he didn’t pluck Spencer and Crooms out of the transfer portal to shore up the Gophers’ run blocking.
Change is coming. I imagine it was an easy decision to hand the ball to Mohamed Ibrahim 25+ times per game because he was the most talented player on offense. With Ibrahim out the door, the balance of talent has already shifted, and I expect the offense to follow suit.