GILBERT, Ariz. — P.J. Fleck stood on the sideline at Campo Verde High School as Gophers football players trickled onto the field for their Christmas Day practice leading up to Tuesday’s Guaranteed Rate Bowl game against West Virginia.
From that spot, the Gophers head coach shared his views on what his team will look like during his sixth season at the helm in 2022.
“I’m really excited for the future of where we are going,” Fleck told the Pioneer Press. “We’ve got a lot of experience coming back, but what I think is really exciting is this youthful talent is getting a little bit older. They are now at the spot where you can play them.”
With a 18-6 bowl win over West Virginia to cap a 9-4 season, Minnesota will have what Fleck has dubbed the ‘Encore Four,” a quartet of top-talent offensive players coming back for a sixth season at the U — quarterback Tanner Morgan, center John Michael Schmitz, receiver Chris Autman-Bell and running back Mo Ibrahim.
The Gophers are projected to have six starters returning on both sides of the ball.
In order to reload and contend for the Big Ten West title, here are six position groups that will need to have smooth transitions next season:
Though Schmitz, an all-Big Ten player in 2021, will return, the U will lose both guards and both tackles from its starting line. That’s literally and figuratively a massive rebuilding project — and it’s complicated with Schmitz leaving the bowl game with a foot injury.
Left guard Conner Olson, the Big Ten’s all-time leader in starts, and left guard Sam Schluter have exhausted their eligibility after six seasons. Right guard Blaise Andries and right tackle Daniel Faalele are leaving eligibility on the table and expect to hear their names called early in the NFL draft next spring.
Fleck named five players when asked about filling those vacancies: tackles JJ Guedet and Aireontae Ersery, and guards Karter Shaw, Nathan Boe and Tyler Cooper. And Axel Ruschmeyer, the sixth O-lineman in 2021, will return next fall; he came into Tuesday’s game when Schmitz was sidelined. Guedet, Ersery and Boe each played some more in the 2020 season due to COVID-19 cases within the team.
“It feels like they have been here forever for us because we’ve had the same offensive line for a while,” Fleck said. “But these are guys that are ready to take the next step and play.”
Near the end of his seventh collegiate season, Micah Dew-Treadway joked earlier this month about searching for ways to play an eighth campaign, but alas, he’s done after the bowl game.
That’s also true for fellow defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney and defensive end Boye Mafe, who announced Monday he would turn pro after Tuesday’s game. Like Mafe, Esezi Otomewo is headed for the Senior Bowl and is expected to join his college roommate playing at the next level.
Tackle Trill Carter and end Thomas Rush will be back, but there are opportunities for younger players to step in. Fleck mentioned Logan Richter, Jacob Schuster and Deven Eastern inside, and Gage Keys, Danny Striggow and Austin Booker on the edge. Jah Joyner got his first career sack against the Mountaineers.
Booker, a 6-foot-6, 240-pound true freshman from Greenwood, Ind., might be the most hyped among this group. He backed it up with an athletic pass breakup during the young-player scrimmage portion of the Christmas Day practice.
Fleck also continued to say the D-line is a spot they might add a player via the transfer portal.
The deepest position group on the roster will be running back. In addition to Ibrahim, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams are also coming back from season-ending injuries. Mar’Keise Irving and Ky Thomas, who have carried the load with that trio sidelined this season, won’t be freshmen anymore next fall. Both Irving and Thomas went over 100 yards against West Virginia.
“That’s a great problem for (offensive coordinator Kirk) Ciarrocca,” running backs coach Kenni Burns joked. “I think we are going to do what we do offensively. We will find some creative ways to get guys the ball. As I told these guys, ‘Don’t worry about how many touches we’re going to get or what kind of touches you’re going to get. All you can do is keep changing your best daily, guys. If you change your best, the rest will work out for itself.’ ”
The room will get even more crowded with the addition of true freshman Zack Evans from Rockwall, Texas.
“When I saw Zack play back a long time ago, I didn’t know if we could get Zack,” Burns said. “This was going back to this time last year. He was a highly touted kid, but he came off an injury and I think people kind of backed off a little bit. Zack took that personal. … I think he’s a guy that people are going to like watch play, for sure.”
With nearly 50 games played, Justus Harris has been a mainstay at this position during Fleck’s tenure at Minnesota.
Incoming transfer Shannon “Beanie” Bishop from Western Kentucky, who has two years of eligibility remaining, might slot in here, while Sol Brown or Jalen Glaze or true freshman Darius Green from Covington, Ga., are also in the mix.
“Green can really play into that role and do both at safety and nickel,” Fleck said. “He has had a great season behind all the scenes. He’s going to be a special player.”
The U’s top tackler, Jack Gibbens, is done after the bowl game, but runner-up Mariano Sori-Marin will be back for his fifth season next fall.
Joe Rossi said Braelen Oliver, who had a “catastrophic” knee injury two years ago, has been progressing very well as he played in all 13 games this year. Oliver started seven games when they U opened with their base 4-3 front.
“I’m very proud about how he’s gone about his business and how we’ve seen improvement week in and week out,” said defensive coordinator Rossi, who added Oliver’s best career game at the U came in the Wisconsin win at the end of November.
Rossi also mentioned Cody Lindenberg, Jaqwondis Burns, Donald Willis, Jose Aune and Lucas Finnessy as contenders for more playing time next season. Lindenberg and Aune are coming back from season-ending injuries.
“I think the strength is the depth,” Rossi said. “Do I know who it is right now? I have no idea who it is right now, but I like the people we have and how they’re working.”
The only expected departure among receivers and tight ends is sixth-year tight end Ko Kieft, with Brevyn Spann-Ford climbing the depth chart. The 6-foot-7 target from St. Cloud received more targets as the calendar flipped to November. And true freshman Jameson Geers, who made his debut in the bowl, has received praise from coaches this season.
Wideouts behind Chris Autman-Bell lacked consistency in 2021, but Dylan Wright showed against the Mountaineers why he was a four-star recruit who started his college career at Texas A&M when he had two receptions for 58 yards in the first half.
Daniel Jackson and Mike Brown-Stephens also will have higher expectations in 2022. And the bar will be raised for Minnesota’s passing game, which threw the ball on roughly 30 percent of plays in 2021.
“I know we didn’t throw the ball particularly a lot this year,” Fleck said postgame. “I’m very aware of that. That doesn’t mean we aren’t going to throw the ball a lot next year. We are going to have incredible balance; wideouts are another year experienced.”