Fleck High on Gophers Offensive Line
Enjoy a Friday notes column with information on football, basketball, hockey, media and wrestling newsmakers.
Third-year Golden Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck expects his offensive line to be among the better ones in the Big Ten next fall. Offensive line performance has often been an issue in the program’s recent past and Minnesota hasn’t had a center, guard or tackle chosen in the NFL Draft for 13 years.
The enthusiastic Fleck said the Gophers, who begin spring practice next Tuesday, could have “incredible line play in the making.” Minnesota has several offensive linemen with starting experience returning from a 7-6 team that closed the year winning two of its last three regular season games, and then won a bowl game by the largest margin in program history.
Fleck believes a top offensive line is “the name of the game” in the Big Ten Conference. He knows programs that win at a high level consistently have offensive lines that excel and produce top players.
“It’s a very, very physical conference,” Fleck said. “It’s a long season. It’s nine conference games. …It is a battle every single week, especially up front. If you can have bigger, stronger, more athletic, smarter (linemen), and you continue to develop that every single year, I think you’re going to have a lot of success.”
Fleck’s returnees include Connor Olson, a starting guard who could move to center and replace Jared Weyler who was a senior last fall. Fleck said it’s also not clear yet whether Blaise Andries, another starter last season, will end up at tackle or guard.
Fleck couldn’t talk about his offensive line without quickly discussing a tight end roster that is loaded with big bodies who are counted on to complement the blocking of the center, guards and tackles. The tight end group includes 6-foot-4 Jake Paulson, a starter last season, who has bulked up from 245 pounds to 270.
Minnesota has eight returning starters on offense and the competition at some positions will be intense. The running back roster, for example, will be one of the better such units in the country with returnees Shannon Brooks, Mohamed Ibrahim, Rodney Smith and Bryce Williams. Fleck said the foursome have already accounted for “6,500 yards and 52 touchdowns” during their careers at Minnesota.
“I would call that a lot of productivity coming back in the running back position,” the coach added.
Minnesota’s first practice open to the public will be March 15 starting at 4:45 p.m. The location has yet to be announced.
In Lindsay Whalen’s first season as Gopher women’s basketball coach, home attendance has increased from an average of 3,130 in 2017-18 to 5,738 in 2018-19. The regular season finale last Sunday against Michigan State had announced attendance of 7,707 and was the third largest home crowd of the season.
This has been a historical week in Minnesota for female play-by-play announcers on television, with Marney Gellner doing the Twins’ spring training game from Fort Myers Sunday, and Sloane Martin describing games Wednesday at the boys’ state high school hockey tournament in St. Paul. Never before in Minnesota have women done TV play-by-play for the Twins and the boys’ hockey tournament.
The Pioneer Press chose John Mayasich as the No. 1 all-time Minnesota prep hockey player in its recent series listing the 75 best ever. He had a great prep career at Eveleth High School and was a four-time All-American for the Gophers in 1952, 1953, 1954 and 1955. The newspaper named South St. Paul’s Phil Housley No. 2.
Best guess to win the “sweepstakes” to get Rochester John Marshall basketball superstar Matthew Hurt is Duke and its legendary coach Mike Krzyzweski, who in past years has landed Minnesotans Gary Trent Jr., and brothers Tre and Tyus Jones.
The Gophers’ chances? Slim to none, according to those who have followed the recruiting of Hurt.
Coach Richard Pitino’s Minnesota men’s basketball team closes its regular season at No. 24 Maryland tonight, after upsetting No. 11 ranked Purdue Tuesday at Williams Arena. A Minnesota win will be the first time since 1993 (excluding vacated seasons) that a Gopher team has won back-to-back games against ranked opponents.
Among those in attendance at Tuesday’s game was 1952-53 All-American Gopher guard Charley Mencel. He also played for the NBA Minneapolis Lakers, and is among the Gopher greats whose jerseys are displayed in the Williams Arena rafters.
At No. 1 Gable Steveson, the Apple Valley freshman with a 27-0 record, is Minnesota’s highest seeded wrestler as the Gophers go into Saturday and Sunday’s Big Ten Championships at Williams Arena, but others, of course, will be counted on to contribute. “We have 10 guys who can go out and score points,” coach Brandon Eggum said.
Shortstops can be the best athletes on their teams, so maybe the Twins don’t face a logjam for eventual playing time with incumbent Jorge Polanco and valued minor league prospects Nick Gordon, Royce Lewis, and Wander Javier.
It wouldn’t be surprising if a Fortune 500 CEO is hired to replace retiring Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany in June of 2020.