When Darrell Hazell was the wide receivers coach at Ohio State more than 10 years ago, P.J. Fleck worked for him as a graduate assistant. They still have a relationship while the two have moved through career coaching stops including Fleck’s hiring this winter as the Gophers new head football coach.
“So I know P.J. very well,” Hazell told Sports Headliners during an interview. “We’ve talked quite a few times. I think he’ll do a great job. He’ll work hard and he’s a great recruiter. He’ll work hard at it.”
Fleck’s recruiting is a major offseason story this winter and spring. At times the Gophers’ 2018 recruiting class flirted around the top 10 composite national rankings by 247Sports. In the latest 247 composite rankings the Gophers are still an impressive No. 20.
Hazell was head coach at Purdue until last fall when he was dismissed during his fourth season. The Boilermakers and Minnesota are two of the teams in the Big Ten’s West Division, so Hazell knows what it takes to compete in the league.
Can Fleck’s recruiting result in enough quality players for the Gophers to soon contend for division titles? Hazell said because he doesn’t know much about the Minnesota program, he can’t predict, but he issued words of caution.
“There’s a lot of people to beat in the Big Ten in recruiting,” Hazell said. “That’s the hard part. But he’ll go after it hard.”
Hazell talked to Sports Headliners at Winter Park last week where he has transitioned from college coaching to the NFL and being the Vikings’wide receivers coach. Hazell, 53, has 30 years of coaching experience including 14 working directly with wide receivers. He’s been a career college coach, with his only taste of the NFL an internship working with wide receivers in Oakland in 1998. As a player, he was an All-American wide receiver at Muskingum College in Ohio.
Was Hazell’s ego bruised going from Big Ten head coach to an NFL assistant?
“No, not at all,” he answered. “This is something I had not done (in his coaching career). That was one of the things that I said. I am not going to go back and do something I’ve done.
“Obviously coaching receivers is natural. This was an opportunity for me to do something that was exciting. Something that was new. It’s been a great three or four months.”
When Hazell was out of coaching after losing his job at Purdue, he received calls regarding other opportunities, but he was not in a hurry to decide on his next career move, and it had to be right. He had no idea that opportunity would be the Vikings, an organization where he knew no one and located in a city where he had never worked.
What was going through Hazell’s mind during the dead of winter? “Take it one day at a time, enjoy life,” he said. “I wasn’t worried about anything. Just trying to relax and enjoy the family.
“I got the phone call. I said, Hey, this is a heck of an opportunity if it’s afforded to me. I am going to look into it very closely.
“I am really elated that I did because the players have been phenomenal. Their work ethic is tremendous, and the coaching staff, it meshes so well together. Then you know we’ve got such great leadership here with Rick and Zim.”
The phone call from the Vikings to Hazell initially came on February 13 from general manager Rick Spielman. Ten days later, with the approval of Spielman and head coach Mike Zimmer, the Vikings announced their new wide receivers coach, replacing George Stewart who joined the Chargers’ staff.
Understandably the last few months have been a period of evaluation by both Hazell and his wide receivers. “I couldn’t have asked for a better group,” he said. “We’ve got 11 guys in there and they are all eager to be really good. …”
Hazell goes about his work with intensity and the goal of excellence. Although he is no longer responsible for the entire operation of a football program, his past experience helps him understand what Zimmer is doing.
Hazell’s four years leading Purdue and two years before that at Kent State was something he talked about in his interview with the Vikings. “I said I can be a better assistant coach now that I’ve been a head coach, because I see things with a different perspective. …”
Fleck and athletic director Mark Coyle meet the public at a Minnesota Alumni Association sponsored event from 5:30 to 8 p.m. June 22 in the DQ Club Room at TCF Bank Stadium. Fleck will talk about the upcoming season at the gathering which is open to both alumni association members and nonmembers. More information at 612-624-2323.
Street & Smith’s college football magazine headlined its Mid-American Conference section like this: “What the Fleck? No. P.J. means new hope in the MAC.”
The publication also said: “Engaging, energetic and a flat-out winner, Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck rowed his boat all the way to Minnesota and the league will miss him.”
Individuals with Minnesota connections being considered for 2018 induction into the College Football Hall of Fame include Blake Elliott (Saint John’s); Ross Fortier (MSU Moorhead); Marcus Harris (Wyoming); and Bob Stein (Gophers).
The pecking order of talent in the NBA Finals is a bit muddled including the positioning of former Timberwolves star Kevin Love. Does the Cavs power forward deserve the No. 5 spot, or is Draymond Green from the Warriors a better choice? We might need to call in IBM’s Watson to figure that out, and also how to rank LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry.
Frank Deford, the acclaimed sportswriter who died recently, wrote about his career in a 2010 story for Sports Illustrated that included a night in Minneapolis when he was doing a Roller Derby article. Deford said one of the skaters, who was “flamboyantly gay,” made a move on him late night at a bar. Deford, who was straight and married to a former runway model, was more than surprised the next night in Duluth when team members approached him and sang, “Here comes the bride.”
If the Twins don’t draft Hunter Greene tomorrow with the No. 1 overall pick in the Major League Baseball Draft and he turns out to be a star either as a pitcher or position player, Minnesota management will hear about it for a long time including the criticism they didn’t want to spend the money to acquire the southern California phenom. The guess here is that soon after 6 p.m. tomorrow night MLB will announce the Twins have chosen Greene.
Vikings wide receivers coach Darrell Hazell likes Michael Floyd’s attitude but he wants the Minnesota native, who joined the team last month, to master the subtleties of his position.
Floyd, the former Cretin Derham-Hall High School All-American, has played five seasons in the NFL. Most of his five year pro career was spent with the Cardinals where he was a sometimes starter. Three of his seasons in Arizona he had 840 yards or more in receptions. Hazell has been working with Floyd in spring practices and was asked Tuesday where the 27-year-old needs to improve.
“The details of the position,” Hazell answered.
The former Purdue head coach, who joined the Vikings last winter, spoke footballese in providing examples of those details—talking about positioning the body and catching the ball in minimum time. “All those things are so important,” Hazell said. “The details of it. I mean that’s where we’ve got to get him to take the next step.”
No doubt, Hazell emphasizes mastery of details when talking about his other wide receivers, too. Floyd, though, is a focus of attention by Minnesota fans and media because of his background. His history includes not only Twin Cities roots and successes at Notre Dame and with the Cardinals, but an incident last December when he was charged with driving under the influence. In February he spent time in jail.
“His attitude has been great,” Hazell said. “He’s fit in well with the guys. You always wonder how guys are going to mesh. They are so welcoming to whoever is in the room and they help each other. They coach each other, and that makes my job that much easier.”
Floyd was released by the Cardinals after his DUI in mid-December and picked up by the Patriots. The Vikings signed him in May as an unrestricted free agent. He then reunited with Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph who was a teammate at Notre Dame.
Rudolph had reached out to Floyd after his incident. “We all make mistakes,” Rudolph said. “It’s about what you do after and the lesson that you learn from it. He realizes he made a mistake, and he is in a great place right now. He’s happy to be home. I am just here as a friend and now as a teammate to try to help him out.”
Floyd and Rudolph have communicated almost every day for years. “We have been friends since we were 16 years old,” Rudolph said. “Anytime he used to come in town he stayed at my house (and) when he’d come…to workout in the summer, or see family. More times than not, he stayed at the house, so just kind of a natural fit.”
Since joining the Vikings, Floyd has been living in Rudolph’s basement. “As long as he is okay putting up with my 8-month-old twins, he is welcome to stay as long as he wants.”
Rudolph talking about running back Dalvin Cook, the Vikings 2017 first round draft choice: ”He is really fun to watch. You can tell why he had so much success at Florida State. He is a special runner. He is a guy who has great vision, and always seems to make the right cut.”
Jerick McKinnon started seven games for the Vikings last season and rushed for a career high 539 yards in his third NFL year. He spent a few months during the offseason training with Adrian Peterson and another advisor in Houston. “I think it’s going to pay off tremendously, so I am excited to see,” said McKinnon.
McKinnon is 5-9, about 211 pounds. Last season he had just two rushes of 15 yards or more, running for 25 yards against the Giants and 36 versus the Bears. “I feel more explosive now,” he said.
J.D. Spielman, the son of Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, could be a starting wide receiver for Nebraska this season as a redshirt freshman.
Dom Barber is leaving his administrative position with the Gophers football program to work in private business. The Wayzata High School graduate played defensive back for the Gophers from 2004-2007.
Former Gopher wide receiver Tony Levine from St. Paul is part of the new coaching staff at Purdue where he has varied duties including co-offensive coordinator.
Despite losing two of three games this week in Seattle, the Twins have the second best road record in Major League Baseball at 18-8. Minnesota, 12-18 at home this season, hasn’t had a winning road percentage since 2010 when the club was 41-40. The Twins’ world title team of 1987 was 29-52 in regular season away games, while the 1991 club was 44-37 on the road.
Miguel Sano has 15 home runs in 189 at bats and could join some rare company by season’s end. Only Bob Allison, Brian Dozier, Harmon Killebrew and Josh Willingham have hit 35 home runs or more in a single season for the Twins.
MLB Network will cover Monday’s Major League Baseball Draft, with the Twins selecting first overall and their announced choice expected to come shortly after 6 p.m. The Twins are holding a draft party for ticketholders attending Monday night’s game against the Mariners at Target Field. Gates open at 5:30 p.m. and patrons can follow the draft via the MLB Network and other sources at the ballpark.
The 46th annual Tapemark Charity Pro-Am Tournament, benefitting people with developmental learning disabilities, is Friday-Sunday at Southview Country Club in West St. Paul. Learn more about the tournament at Tapemarkgolf.org.
Owner Glen Taylor told Sports Headliners his basketball decision makers are looking at a “scenario” where the Timberwolves acquire a veteran player by giving up their No. 7 pick from the first round of the June 22 NBA Draft.
The team’s starting lineup has three players 22 or younger, and the others are ages 27 and 26. That young core has talent and promise but the last two seasons the Wolves have won a combined total of only 50 games, and haven’t made the playoffs since 2004. The team’s development could be enhanced by a skilled veteran player. Specifically, a defensive stopper who will limit the opposition’s best scorer, according to Taylor.
President-coach Tom Thibodeau and general manager Scott Layden are looking at alternatives on how to improve the team including evaluation of potential draft choices. Taylor won’t demand roster changes before next season but he wants potential moves to be explored by his two top basketball executives.
“I don’t think we’re just going to sit there and say we’re going to go with what we’ve got,” Taylor said. “We could do that. I think they’re willing (Thibodeau and Layden) to do that, but I think they want us to look at…other opportunities…and I guess it would be a free agent or a trade. I don’t think their expectations are our draft choice, even though it’s seven, is going to be an immediate answer.”
Taylor said a challenge in evaluating players for the June 22 draft is sometimes access to watch them, and also to obtain medical information. Agents will set limitations in both areas, trying to do what they think is most advantageous for clients.
“I was hopeful that when we were doing the CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) discussions that we would get some of these things handled better so that we would have more consistency,” Taylor said. “That all medical records were shown equally. (That) everybody had access to watching a player scrimmage against some of the other players.
“We weren’t able to get that. Personally, I don’t think it’s the best way to do things, that the agents are controlling the players much more and giving you less access to them.”
Taylor met with Thibodeau and Layden recently to understand why his promising team won only two more games last season than the year before. He was told it was a combination of things including major injuries to starting guard Zach LaVine and reserve forward Nemanja Bjelica. Another key was the team’s inconsistent and often inadequate defense.
Taylor had news about center Nikola Pekovic who didn’t play last season and has a history of recurring injuries. About a month ago Taylor said a doctor declared Pekovic probably can’t play next season and now the Wolves need corroboration from an NBA doctor. “We’re waiting for that confirmation,” said Taylor.
Next season is the last of Pekovic’s contract with the Wolves and likely the end of his NBA career. If doctors rule the 31-year-old can’t play, insurance covers 80 percent of the Wolves’ obligation.
Starting guard Ricky Rubio had his best of six NBA seasons in 2016-2017 but rumors continue to circulate about the Wolves trading him. “I don’t know where they’re coming from,” Taylor said. “I’ve read them just like you’ve read them, but I don’t know where they’re coming from, or why they’re saying that.”
College football magazines are now on newsstands offering predictions including for the Big Ten’s West Division. Athlon, Lindy’s and Street & Smith’s all forecast a fifth place finish for Minnesota in the seven-team division.
“The first seven games all are very winnable. After that—yikes,” Lindy’s says. Minnesota’s last five games are on the road at Iowa, Michigan and Northwestern, and at home against Nebraska and Wisconsin.
Lindy’s has the Gophers ranked 40th in the country and Street & Smith’s projects a Quick Lane Bowl invite to Detroit. Athlon sees Minnesota finishing with a 6-6 overall record and 4-5 in the Big Ten.
Both Athlon and Lindy’s include Gopher junior placekicker Emmit Carpenter on their first team All-Big Ten offensive units. Gopher senior Steven Richardson is part of Lindy’s first team All-Big Ten defensive line.
Street & Smith’s labeled new Gophers coach P.J. Fleck best interview on a Big Ten list that also says Ohio State’s Urban Meyer is the league’s best coach and Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh is the best tweeter. “No coach will be more entertaining at Big Ten Media Day than Fleck,” the magazine says.
The 46th annual Big Ten Football Media Days are July 24 and 25 in Chicago. Fleck addresses the media on the second day.
The Big Ten office announced TV times for 35 games on ESPN and FOX Sports last week. The only Gophers’ game listed was Minnesota’s Homecoming against Illinois on October 21 with a 2:30 or 3 p.m. kickoff.