Football

Gophers football looks forward to moving past tumult of 2020

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A snapshot of the 2020 football season likely isn’t something that P.J. Fleck and his Gophers offensive coaching staff hung on the fridge with magnets like a proud parent would with a child’s report card full of straight A’s.

The Gophers posted a 3-4 record and saw their offense take a step back from its record-setting 2019 ways. It all came during the coronavirus pandemic and amid the emotionally charged backdrop of the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.

“You’re looking at things that were constantly moving and constantly out of your control — changing at the last minute, contingency plan upon contingency plan upon contingency plan,” Fleck said Tuesday. “There were a lot of things we were focusing on, and not just football and not just how well our offense was running. That’s completely my responsibility and my decision to do so. … There was a lot going on in this state, in this city that deserved a lot more attention than whether we scored a point or not.”

Fast forward to late April, and hope springs eternal, as it often does for college football teams in spring practice. The Gophers on Tuesday completed their 13th practice of the spring, and at 11 a.m. Saturday they will put their 2021 team on display in front of 10,000 for the spring game at TCF Bank Stadium.

“I’m excited. The guys have been working incredibly hard, and they’ve gotten better,” Fleck said. “We’re making strides every day.”

Last year’s Gophers ranked 71st nationally in scoring offense (27.3 points per game) and 69th in total offense (391 yards per game). That was a noticeable drop-off from the 2019 campaign, in which Minnesota averaged 34.1 points (21st nationally) on the way to a 10-2 record and Outback Bowl victory.

The graduation of Tyler Johnson and the limited availability of Rashod Bateman, who played only five games before opting out to prepare for the NFL draft, was difficult for the offense to overcome. Quarterback Tanner Morgan passed for 30 touchdowns in 2019 but only seven in 2020.

Fleck and Gophers offensive co-coordinators Mike Sanford Jr. and Matt Simon have had the winter to assess and adjust, looking for combinations that will get the offense humming again.

“That’s where Mike and Matt have taken our offense and looking at our personnel, from top to bottom: What do we do really well? And just because we did ‘X’ in the past, is that what this team can do?” Fleck said. “And just because we haven’t done ‘X’ in the past, does that mean this team can or cannot do that?”

Fleck believes his team can learn from its disappointments of last fall.

“I’m glad we went through that because I think our team is incredibly together, incredibly connected,” he said.

Players select teams; Ibrahim won’t play

Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. and defensive coordinator Joe Rossi will serve as coaches of the Maroon and Gold teams, respectively, for Saturday’s spring game. Gophers players, in conjunction with the coordinators, drafted the teams Tuesday morning, and Fleck said starters were split among the teams rather than having first-team offense vs. first-team defense.

“The depth has to be our strength, has to be our strength,” Fleck said. “The team knows that.”

Mohamed Ibrahim, the 2020 Big Ten running back of the year, won’t play Saturday because he has been observing the monthlong Islamic holiday of Ramadan, which calls for Muslims to abstain from food and drink from sunup to sundown.

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