With esteemed offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca gone to Rutgers since last January, who calls the plays Thursday night when Minnesota opens its season at home against Nebraska?
After Ciarrocca couldn’t refuse an offer for more money, and opportunity to be closer to family back East, Fleck named Greg Harbaugh Jr. and Matt Simon co-coordinators. Simon held that title last season with Ciarrocca but it was Kirk in charge on game days.
For unknown reasons Fleck has kept his play caller for Nebraska and presumably the entire season secret. The prediction here, and acknowledged by a trusted source, is Harbaugh makes the play calls this season.
Why? Because more than anything, Harbaugh coaches the quarterbacks. With that vital relationship, it will seem odd if Harbaugh doesn’t receive the play calling assignment. Ciarrocca was quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator at Minnesota.
Simon, who specializes in coaching wide receivers, has called plays on an interim basis in two bowl games. His input, of course, is valued as the Gophers move forward, as is the contribution of offensive line coach Brian Callahan who is also the run game coordinator.
Callahan has been coaching the offensive line with considerable success since 2018. The Gophers have rushed with the best teams in the nation and produced an impressive list of All-Big Ten linemen.
Nathan Boe knows Callahan well as a sixth-year offensive lineman. He said his coach brings out the best in everyone’s potential. “He’s really a molder and he molds people into being the best version of themselves,” Boe said. “He’s been very demanding but you wouldn’t want anything less from your offensive line coach. …He’s a masterful mind at creating opportunities, especially short yardage, and goal line. It’s really fun to learn from him and just understand his knowledge of the game.”
Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck has to hope 2023 will start a run of stability with the play-calling responsibility and coordinator leadership. Ciarrocca left the Gophers after the 2019 season to accept the same job at Penn State. Mike Sanford Jr. replaced Ciarrocca, but he lasted just two seasons. Ciarrocca, who had the Gophers averaging a near school record 34.1 points per game in 2019, came back for 2022.
Harbaugh, who called plays at Western Michigan when he was an assistant coach there, will go through a growth cycle if he is the play caller at Minnesota. The Gophers will hope he is more than good Thursday night and even better when the regular season ends in November against Wisconsin.
A former college coach, who texts with Sports Headliners, said it will be “fun” to watch how play calling works out for the Gophers. He spoke candidly knowing his name would not be published.
“There is no such thing as co-coordinators on game day! Someone needs total responsibility to make quick and final decisions,” he wrote. “Co-coordinators are good during the week for practice planning or run/pass breakdown, but on Saturday only one coach can truly call plays to be successful.
“I am not a big fan of ‘on the job’ training for play calling at the power five level. To me (the) experience of calling plays at any level is worth more than gold. There is nothing like the speed and pace in the (press) box when calling plays in football. You literally have 4-6 seconds to get the personnel group, formation and play in right after the tackle occurs on the previous play.
“Sometimes the greatest skill of a play caller is the plays they don’t call, meaning they have a feel for what stunt/blitz might be coming and they know not to call certain plays at certain times (turning) into…potentially bad situations. Ultimately, it comes down to the players’ execution of each play. After all, every play works when you draw it up on the board!
“It will be a lot of pressure on the first-time (Gopher) play caller and will be interesting to see how they react. More importantly how do they adjust on the fly—as the game does not slow down. …”
The assumption is Fleck will okay more pass plays this season with promising quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis returning with his strong arm, and record setting rusher Mo Ibrahim gone to the NFL. While the Gophers may approach a 50-50 pass-run ratio, don’t anticipate a wild aerial show. Fleck’s core coaching philosophy prioritizes an effective running game.
Fleck pointed out that in 2019, when the Gophers had two first team All-Big Ten wide receivers in Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson, they threw the ball only 38 percent of the time. Don’t expect the 2023 offense to deviate too much (no matter who is calling plays) from ball possession football.
“There’s reason why we do hire from within to keep that system very similar,” Fleck said.
Fleck is 44-27 in six seasons at Minnesota. The win total is fifth in program history and his 26 Big Ten wins are sixth best. His winning percentage of .619 is third best among 11 coaches with 45 games or more leading programs at Minnesota.
Much of the success has been because of superb defenses led by coordinator Joe Rossi. Since 2019 when Rossi became the full-time coordinator the Gophers are 32-14 overall and 21-13 in the Big Ten. In 2022 the 9-4 Gophers had the No. 4 scoring defense (13.85 points) nationally and No. 9 total defense giving up 295.1 yards per game.
Gopher preseason All-American safety Tyler Nubin has taken note of Rossi’s wisdom. “That’s a guru, man. He knows it all. We have a check, a call for everything. He’s one of those guys that will sit in his office until 3 o clock in the morning and just game plan cause that’s the type of guy he is. …The things that you can do extra in order to put yourself ahead of the game, he’s a perfect emulation of that, and that’s what we try to accomplish every single day.”
Jerry Kill, who turned 62 last Thursday, saw his New Mexico State Aggies lose 41-30 Saturday to UMass. A peerless rebuilder of programs, he led the once hapless Aggies to a surprising 7-6 record last season during his first year in Las Cruces. The former Gophers’ football boss is a ball coach through and through. He may try to coach forever.
The Vikings have the leverage in contract talks dragging out with tight end T.J. Hockenson. He is under contract this season and although he’s undoubtedly seeking a lot more than $12 million in 2024, the club knows it can franchise tag him for about that amount. His camp can argue the going rate for the better tight ends in the NFL is more and to keep him happy a richer deal is deserved but that negotiating approach isn’t that formidable.
The Vikings have one of the better tight end rosters in the league, with Josh Oliver and Johnny Mundt backing up Hockenson. That quality depth is assured if Hockenson is injured or for any reason unavailable.
The Vikings must reduce their roster to 53 players on Tuesday. Here is a guess at rookies who make the team: WR Jordan Addison, CB Mekhi Blackmon, OLB Andre Carter, LB Ivan Pace, CB/special teams NaJee Thompson.
The Twins decision makers are all-in on position-less baseball as they continue to show. Joey Gallo started in center field Friday night, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see rookie second baseman/DH Edouard Julien play at first base.
MLB.com points out the AL Central Division leading Twins and second place Guardians have decided every game they’ve played against each other this season by one or two runs. There are six remaining games between the two this season, with a three-game series starting Monday at Target Field.