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Looks Like Golden Gophers ‘Rowing’ Now

December 27, 2018 - (0) comments

 

The Golden Gophers football team closed fast the last several weeks winning three of their final four games including an upset and dominating performance against Georgia Tech last night in the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.

P.J. Fleck

The victory gave Minnesota a final record above .500 at 7-6. The game offered more evidence the players are all-in on head coach P.J. Fleck and his culture. His “Row the Boat” mantra and demanding high energy environment has generated critics among the public, media and even presumably inside the halls of the U athletics compound, but it appears the second-year head coach has won over his team and perhaps placed the program on a path of sustained success.

In surprise wins, Minnesota has defeated Purdue, 41-10, Wisconsin, 37-15 and Georgia Tech, 34-10. Those are three above average Power Five teams, and people who know football are noticing including a former prominent Minnesota high school coach who has been following the Gophers for decades.

“I think the players have bought in,” he said last night, while speaking anonymously. “There’s been a lot of criticism of Fleck, and the players hear that, but now they believe. The culture has changed.”

Another football authority, who also didn’t want his name used, agreed that Minnesota’s impressive late season rally from a poor record going into the Purdue game on November 10 is significant. “It gives hope that the program is going in the right direction,” he said.

The Gophers’ overall record before the Purdue game was 4-5 and they were 1-5 against Big Ten opponents. Minnesota finished the regular season with records of 6-6 and 3-6.

Minnesota’s performance last night can only be graded as excellent work by both coaches and players. The Gophers were prepared and they executed their plans including defensively against a Tech team that was leading the nation in rushing at almost 335 yards per game.

GT’s triple-option attack can make defenders look like traffic cones. A story by college football media authority Athlon before the game said, “Georgia Tech’s offense is nearly impossible to stop, much less slow down.”

The Gophers started the game by making Tech go three-and-out on its first two possessions. Coach Paul Johnson’s team was held to 224 yards rushing by playing assignment football and doing it with passion. The effort was part of a resurgence by a Minnesota defense that held Purdue, Wisconsin and Georgia Tech to an average of 11.7 points per game.

That success came after a period when the Gophers gave up 30 points or more to six opponents, and yielded over 40 points four times. The disaster of allowing lowly Illinois to score 55 points forced a change in defensive coordinators and philosophy—mainly making defensive assignments simpler under the direction of new leader Joe Rossi. “When kids can play fast, they can have that kind of success, thinking less and reacting faster,” one of the sources said. “Simplifying things made all the difference and allowed the players to play with a lot of confidence.”

The Gopher offense did its part in the Quick Lane Bowl win, too. Minnesota scored 13 points in the first half and 21 in the second with multiple players at their best including freshman running back Mohamed Ibrahim who ran for 224 yards. Ibrahim’s exceptional vision enables him to find running lanes and his determination to not be tackled to the ground is in the best tradition of recent Gopher running backs.

Junior wide receiver Tyler Johnson had two touchdown catches last night and is likely weighing a decision to turn pro. He might project as a mid-round NFL draft pick in a few months but could decide another season would benefit his draft status more in 2020. He was named first team All-Big Ten by the media after the regular season when his 74 catches ranked second in the conference.

Freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan managed the offense impressively, not only throwing two touchdown passes but by not turning the ball over. It might have been Morgan’s best game after becoming the starter last month.

What caught the attention of observers as much as anything last night was how physical the Minnesota offense was. The unit looked bigger and stronger than GT’s defensive players, with the Gophers coming up with 403 yards in total offense to their opponent’s 301. “The offensive line was fantastic,” one of the sources said.

Minnesota behemoths including Blaise Andries, Curtis Dunlap Jr. and Daniel Faalele often pushed adversaries around using superior physical size and technique. At 6-foot-9 and 400-pounds Faalele is difficult to miss. The authority quoted in the previous paragraph said Faalele has big time potential and can become stronger. “I think he’s a Sunday (NFL) player,” he said.

The Gophers earned considerable success last night despite not having many players who have been starters, and even high impact performers. Defensively Minnesota was without Antoine Winfield, Jr., Blake Cashman, Kamal Martin, O.J. Smith and Jamaal Teague. On offense the Gophers didn’t have Donnell Greene, Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith.

The win is an indication of developing depth on the roster. That means there will be a lot of competition for starting positions going into spring practice and fall camp just before next season’s 12-game schedule. This competition will come despite most of the roster’s starters returning next season and being joined by an impressive freshman class.

The way the program closed out 2018 also means something else, according to one of the authorities. “The biggest thing is it gives you great confidence going into the offseason,” he said.

The Gophers have now played in 12 bowl games in program history. The greatest of victories include a Rose Bowl win and last second victory over Oregon. There is also a win over Alabama when that football factory was at ‘low tide.” Ranking near the top of any bowl list was Minnesota’s win two years ago against pass-happy and favored Washington State when Gopher coach Tracy Claeys designed a marvelous defense to help his suspension riddled team win the Holiday Bowl.

Is it likely that some day historians may look back and view the 2018 Quick Lane Bowl win by Minnesota as part of a new chapter of success for a program that hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 1967?

 

Fleck: U Recruiting Class ‘Historic’

December 19, 2018 - (0) comments

 

Enjoy a Wednesday notes column:

On National Signing Day today (Wednesday) the football Golden Gophers have another class ranked in the 30s by the 247Sports composite rankings. The 2019 class is currently at No. 33, while the 2018 class finished at No. 38, per 247.

P.J. Fleck

“National Signing Day, it’s a very historic day for us,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said in video footage shown this morning on the Big Ten Network. “We’re looking to sign…recruiting classes that are arguably the greatest recruiting classes back-to-back in Minnesota history (Internet era).

“Coaches get a lot of credit when you win. … At the end of the day this is a players’ game. And we’ve got to find the best players and the best people that match our culture, match our university, match our state, and match this program as we continue to move forward.”

Because of technology and the fan interest in college football, recruiting rankings have become a phenomena of the new millennium. 247 reported the Gophers’ classes of 2017, 2016 and 2015 ranked No. 59, 46 and 63 nationally.

As of today Minnesota has the No. 8 class in the Big Ten, per 247. West Division rivals Nebraska, Purdue and Wisconsin rank higher but GopherIllustrated.com authority Ryan Burns thinks Minnesota’s class compares favorably, if not better. “I would put the offer list that Minnesota has for their commits versus any team in the Big Ten West (Division), and I think Minnesota would win,” Burns told Sports Headliners several days ago.

The Gophers have two four-star recruits, per 247Sports. They are Memphis defensive tackle Kristian Williams and Ellenwood, Georgia defensive tackle Rashad Cheney. Williams’ FBS offers included LSU and Mississippi, while Cheney turned down Alabama and Georgia.

Another signee, Jason Williamson, the state’s Mr. Football Award winner, will become a legend in his hometown of Owatonna if he has a big career at Minnesota. Williamson rushed for 3,009 yards and 46 touchdowns as a senior running back at Owatonna. During his career he ran for 7,009 yards and 102 touchdowns.

“Jason is an outstanding student (3.69 GPA) and a role model and leader in our hallways,” said Owatonna coach Jeff Williams in a statement after Williamson won the Mr. Football Award Sunday. “He is held in the highest regard by teachers and students alike. He is a favorite at our youth camp and in our elementary cafeterias. He is always willing to give of his time to work with the young kids in our district.”

Among Gophers signing today who could yet see their rankings increase by recruiting authorities is Rockwall, Texas quarterback Jacob Clark. The highly regarded Clark, a three-star recruit, will enroll at Minnesota soon and participate in spring practices.

The Gophers gave out their many annual awards at a banquet Sunday and senior linebacker Blake Cashman wasn’t among those honored. It’s surprising that with 19 different award categories that Cashman, who will skip the Quick Lane Bowl to avoid possible injury and prepare for the 2019 NFL Draft, wasn’t recognized with one or more awards.

The Outstanding Defensive Player Award went to junior end Carter Coughlin who led the team in sacks with 9.5. Cashman led Minnesota in solo, assisted and totals tackles with 104.

Coughlin is outstanding and could have made a difference for Ohio State this season. Coming out of Eden Prairie High School, he thought about becoming a Buckeye. His pass rushing skills would have nicely complemented the absence of OSU All-American defensive end Nick Bosa who missed most of the season for the 12-1 Buckeyes.

Junior Tyler Johnson, who won the team MVP Award Sunday, seems likely to consider declaring for the 2019 NFL Draft. Johnson was one of the Big Ten’s most productive receivers last season with 1,112 yards, 10 touchdown receptions and an average of 15.03 yards per catch.

Pro scouts, though, may question the speed of the 6-2, 200-pound former Minneapolis North athlete. Fleck and receivers coach Matt Simon could appeal to Johnson to play one more season at Minnesota to watch him mature, as did Corey Davis when he played for those coaches at Western Michigan. After Davis’ senior season he was an All-American despite generating minimal interest from college football programs coming out of high school.

Casey Mittlestadt, the former Gopher now an NHL rookie with the Sabres, has five goals and is only four goals behind the third leading rookies in that category.

Targeting 11? The Vikings had 10 sacks in their November 4 win over the Lions and possibly could top that total Sunday in Detroit. Minnesota had nine sacks, including two each from defensive end Danielle Hunter and linebacker Anthony Barr, in last Sunday’s win against the Dolphins.

The North Dakota State Bison, who play next month for a seventh FCS national title in eight years, placed seven players on the Associated Press FCS All-American teams named last week, including three Minnesotans. Hutchinson senior safety Robbie Grimsley was named to the All-American first team defense; senior defensive end Greg Menard from Lakeville North was second team defense; and junior Zack Johnson of Spring Lake Park was honored as a third team offensive tackle selection.

Grimsley and Johnson were named Walter Camp FCS first team All-Americans on Monday. Grimsley has made 51 consecutive starts, Johnson, 29, for NDSU.

Twins front office executives Derek Falvey and Thad Lavine have placed the emphasis on taking a youthful roster into 2019. Pitcher Kyle Gibson at 31 and catcher Jason Castro, 30, are the only players on the club’s 39-man roster 30 or over. Pitcher Addison Reed turns 30 on December 27.

The Twins are offering a 19 percent discount on single game home tickets for March, April, May and September of next year. Excluded is the team’s home opener on March 28.

Dave Joerger, the Minnesota native and NBA Kings coach whose team split two games with the Timberwolves in the last several days, might have been the Wolves head coach if the late Flip Saunders hadn’t wanted the job in 2014.

 

U 2019 Recruiting Class a ‘Big Deal’

December 16, 2018 - (0) comments

 

National Signing Day for high school football players is a couple of days away on Wednesday, December 19. Recruiting authority Ryan Burns from GopherIllustrated.com will tell you Golden Gophers fans have reason to celebrate.

Minnesota’s 2019 class is ranked No. 31 nationally by Rivals.com. That source has the Gophers ahead in the recruiting rankings of traditional football powers Miami and USC. The Gopher group of 24 commits has a composite ranking of 34 by 247Sports, setting up the second consecutive year that coach P.J. Fleck and his staff have landed a class ranked in the 30s.

That is impressive for a program like Minnesota that historically often hasn’t signed classes ranking in the 30s. “Any time you can sign 35 (ranked) back-to-back classes, which Minnesota is on line to do, that’s a big deal,” Burns told Sports Headliners.

Making an impression, too, on Burns is many players in Minnesota’s 2019 class were pursued by Power Five programs including a few elite schools. “I would put the offer list that Minnesota has for their commits versus any team in the Big Ten West (Division), and I think Minnesota would win,” Burns said.

The Gophers have two four-star recruits, per 247Sports. They are Memphis defensive tackle Kristian Williams and Ellenwood, Georgia defensive tackle Rashad Cheney. Williams’ FBS offers included LSU and Mississippi, while Cheney turned down Alabama and Georgia.

Nnamdi Adim-Madumere, a Rivals four-star wide receiver commit from Fort Worth, “continues to turn down” Alabama and Texas A&M, per Burns. Those two programs are having elite recruiting success with their 2019 classes, but yet they are in pursuit of the 6-3, 226-pound Madumere who could be bumped up to four-star status by 247.

Adim-Madumere is not only big for a wide receiver but runs a 4.5 in the 40, Burns said. He describes the young Texan as “an absolute nightmare” matchup for opposing defenders.

Earlier this month Fleck attended a Georgia prep state title game where he watched Lee County defensive tackle DeAngelo Carter (also known as DeAngelo Griffin). He won an MVP award for his play and Burns said that has prompted Pac-12 power Oregon to become interested.

Six of the Gophers’ recruits are defensive linemen and five are tackles. The line was a priority need and it looks like help is on the way for Minnesota. Among the linemen is Ellsworth, Iowa Community College defensive tackle Keonte Schad. “They are (the Gophers) beating out big time schools like Oklahoma for Keonte Schad,” Burns said.

Defensive line, at least according to some recruiting authorities, is the most difficult area to find quality Division 1 football players, and particularly defensive tackles. It takes numbers and quality to build a strong defensive line and Fleck could be establishing a more than solid foundation.

Ryan Burns

When Burns was asked who might be the Gophers’ best player in a couple of years from the class of 2019, he said three-star cornerback Tyler Nubin from Saint Charles, Illinois. He said it’s a “big deal” to sign Nubin who at a “legit” 6-foot-2 is long and athletic. To convince a player with his skill-set to become a Gopher and pass over Michigan State and other Big Ten schools is not “something Minnesota traditionally does,” Burns added.

Next year the Gophers will have one of the deeper and more talented running back units in the country with veterans Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith, and Mohamed Ibrahim who as a redshirt freshman this fall established himself as a starter. More talent is on the way in the class of 2019 including Owatonna’s Jason Williamson whose gaudy numbers included a single game state record of 477 rushing yards. Burns said Williamson will be given an opportunity at running back in the spring and also be looked at as a receiver.

Running back Treyson Potts from Williamsport, Pennsylvania is referred to by Burns as “absolutely a dynamic player” in space. He describes Cameron Wiley, a running back from Las Vegas, as one of the “most athletic kids” in the country. “He ran an electric 4.49 time,” Burns said about the recruit who was pursued by Oregon, a program that has built much of its success on speed.

The Gophers’ 2019 class includes holdover recruit and defensive tackle Logan Richter from Perham, Minnesota. He was recruited by Minnesota for the class of 2018 but decided to wait until 2019 to become a Gopher player.

The final number of recruits in the 2019 class is yet to be determined, with the possibility the class could be larger than the present total of 24.

 

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