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Intrigue May Last at U QB Position

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August 17, 2017

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A Thursday Gophers notes column.

P.J. Fleck will soon announce his starting quarterback but the drama associated with the position could last all season.  The new Gophers coach has gone through spring practices, the summer break, and now a couple weeks of practices leading up to the opening game August 31 without naming a starter.

P.J. Fleck

Fleck is choosing between redshirt senior Conor Rhoda and redshirt sophomore Demry Croft.  Rhoda is a former walk-on now on scholarship who has started one game with the Gophers, a win at Maryland last fall.  Croft has no starts and played minimal minutes behind former starter Mitch Leidner who has graduated.

Based on past experience and reputation, neither player rates high with media who cover Big Ten Conference football.  In its Big Ten football issue, Athlon Sports magazine ranks the Minnesota quarterback group or unit No. 13—ahead of only Rutgers in the 14-team league.  Lindy’s in its college football publication wrote: “The options at quarterback lack experience and could be a season-long drag on the offense.”

Fleck, of course, is being positive. “What I love about both of them (Croft and Rhoda), is they’re both getting better,” he said after practice on Tuesday.  “It hasn’t been an easy decision to say this guy has won the job, because they’re both playing at a high level.”

Fleck and his staff will implement details for the Buffalo game with players next week in preparation for the opener at TCF Bank Stadium. “I am not going to wait much longer,” Fleck said regarding the quarterback decision.

No doubt, though, whoever is named the starter for Buffalo won’t receive a guarantee to play quarterback for 12 games.  Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca know performance may dictate change—perhaps even more than once.

Before training camp started on August 1, probably no one guessed that among the players Fleck would praise the most halfway through practices are junior redshirt defensive tackle Gary Moore and freshman wide receiver Demetrius Douglas.  Moore only played in four games and had two tackles last season but is now among Minnesota’s better defensive linemen.  Douglas, the son of former Gophers receiver Omar Douglas, might already be the team’s best wide out after sophomore Tyler Johnson.

The Gophers impressed with their defense during the Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys era from 2011-2016. Minnesota’s shutdown of pass crazy Washington State in the Holiday Bowl last December was one of the best defensive performances by Minnesota in a long while, but soon after the 17-12 win Claeys, who had been the defensive coordinator under Kill, was fired as head coach.  It would have been understandable if the defensive players were anxious about the prospect of new leadership but senior linebacker Jonathan Celestin remembers taking a calm approach as he reached out to all his teammates after hearing about Claeys and the possibility that many or all of his assistants wouldn’t be retained.

“We (the players) were all at home and I made sure I texted everybody that (they should) have an open mind, no matter what happens,” Celestin said on Tuesday.  “We’re still—at the end of the day—11 players on the field, offense, defense, special teams.  Coaches won’t be out here with us on the field, no matter what.

“…I am sure (new) coach Smith will put us in the right position, but at the end of the day we have to execute.  I just made sure that everybody was on the same page and had an open mind (when he texted to teammates).”

Celestin is impressed with the systems approach of new Gophers defensive coordinator Robb Smith and being able to disguise things with opponents.  “He is very creative,” Celestin said.  “He loves third down, I will tell you that.  He knows how to make everything look the same, and you really won’t know what’s coming at you.  You do a lot of crazy things on defense, I will tell you that.”

Gophers’ sophomore linebacker Thomas Barber is developing a reputation among teammates for physical play.  “That’s always been part of my game,” said the former Robbinsdale Armstrong player.

Celestin is known as “Thumper” for his hard hitting.  He’s impressed with Barber for his physical play—and more.  “He can definitely help the team out a lot,” Celestin said.  “Thomas has grown a lot over these past couple of months—seeing him develop into actually a leader vocally on the field.  He’s trying to call plays out with me, and he can really get into the film room (for study).”

Barber’s older brothers, Dom and Marion III, both played for the Gophers and have emphasized the importance of stretching.  They told Thomas to take care of his body now because “it benefits you in the future too.”

Sophomore linebacker and defensive end Carter Coughlin played at just 214 pounds last season.  “But this year I am 228 and I am about to hit 230, and that’s my goal,” the 6-4 Coughlin said.

Carter Coughlin

Coughlin will sometimes be positioned on the line of scrimmage, and strength is needed there to face bigger blockers than he may see at linebacker.  Before Coughlin’s college career is complete, he wants to add as much as 15 pounds—with the caveat he doesn’t want to lose his signature speed.  “If I am fast then, I’ll even try to get up higher (in weight),” said the former Eden Prairie High School All-American.

Playing part-time last season, Coughlin had two sacks.  “Without a question, there is nothing better than getting a sack.  Absolutely,” he said.

Coughlin ranks Celestin, Barber and senior redshirt defensive back Duke McGhee as three of the hardest hitting players on the Minnesota defense.  “He is the highest out of the underclassmen—without a question,” Coughlin said of Barber.

True freshman tackle Blaise Andries, from Marshall, Minnesota, has been receiving reps with the first team offense.  “People don’t understand how hard it is to play offensive line as a freshman,” said redshirt junior starting center Jared Weyler.  “There’s not many that do it.  The fact that he’s matured enough to take reps with the first team, I am really, really happy for him.  He’s going to continue to develop.”

Weyler had limited game experience last season at center, playing more at guard.  The difference in the two positions includes having the other’s team’s nose guard only about two inches away from the center, and things happen faster than at guard.

Weyler said he’s fortunate to practice against Minnesota senior Steven Richardson, who is among the top defensive linemen in the Big Ten.  “…He’s probably one of the best noses in the country,” Weyler said. “The fact that I get to work with him each and every day, that’s really, really helped my progress too.”

Condolences to families and friends following the recent deaths of former Gophers defensive linemen Ron Kamzelski and Keith Simons.  Kamzelski was second team All-Big Ten in 1968, while Simons made first-team All-Big Ten in 1974.

Still no opponent and specific date determined yet for the Gophers basketball game in December of 2018 at U.S. Bank Stadium, but details will be finalized soon.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers.

Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section.

A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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