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P.J. Fleck: Gophers Defense ‘Talented’

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November 2, 2020


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Enjoy a Monday notes column quoting Mike Zimmer and P.J. Fleck about their inexperienced defenses, and Dave St. Peter on free agents and building next year’s team.

The 0-2 Golden Gophers football team has given up 94 points but in a Zoom call with reporters this afternoon Fleck stressed it is inexperience, not abilities, that is the defense’s problem. “We have a very talented defense,” Fleck said. “…We’ve got a lot of really good players.”

The defense is without seven starters from last year’s 11-2 team, including linebacker Kamal Martin who had some nice plays for the Green Bay Packers Sunday against the Vikings. Fleck used Martin as an example of a young talent with the Gophers who before he left the program had refined his skills including major improvement as a tackler.

Fleck said his inexperienced players are in position to make tackles but not executing. He wants to see more “gang tackling” as the Gophers try to end the explosive plays made by the opposition through two Big Ten losses. Fleck, who said defensive effort is not an issue, referred to a “developmental program” with the Gophers and said, “You’ve got to allow them to fail, to grow. I know it’s hard. …”

This has been the most difficult stretch for Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi since he took over in that role during the 2018 season. Fleck said Rossi is one of the best at what he does. “I think he is one of the best football coaches I’ve ever been around,” Fleck added.

Minnesota has seven more games on the schedule with a trip to Illinois next. Fleck said the chance for players to learn, gain more experience and improve will only grow. “We’re going to be playing a lot more people, and that’s the investment we’re going to continue to make,” he said.

Quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa, who passed for three touchdowns and ran for two more in Maryland’s 45-44 win over the Gophers last Friday, is the Big Ten’s Co-Offensive Player of the Week along with Ohio State QB Justin Fields.

Interestingly, the Vikings played seven rookies on defense yesterday in their 28-22 win over Packers. Zimmer has been the Vikings’ head coach since 2014 and before that spent many years as an NFL assistant, but that seven number made an impression.

“It was interesting, I will say. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that as well,” Zimmer said this afternoon on a media call with reporters.

Injuries and off-season departures have resulted in new players and the mistakes they inevitably make. “Defensively we started out a little slow (yesterday),” Zimmer said. “Some of the young guys, I think they just wanted to watch the Hall of Fame quarterback (Aaron Rodgers), instead of watching their guy, but we played better in the second half. …”

Cornerback Jeff Gladney got beat in the first quarter yesterday on a touchdown pass to Green Bay’s Davante Adams. Gladney should have been positioned to the outside of Adams, not the inside. When he headed toward the sideline coach Zimmer barked at him but the rookie appeared to pay little attention and just kept running.

Zimmer said Gladney started out on the outside and then got out of position. “That’s where (outside) he should have been all the way.”

Rookie cornerback Cameron Dantzler had to be carried off the field with a neck injury yesterday. “He’s doing well,” Zimmer reported. “Got a chance to play this week.”

The Vikings, 2-5, play the Detroit Lions, 3-4, at US Bank Stadium Sunday, and have four of their next five games at home. No predictions from Zimmer, but he expressed optimism about Sunday if the effort and execution of yesterday continues on both offense and defense.

This fall the Minnesota Twins have eight free agents: Ehire Adrianza, Alex Avila, Tyler Clippard, Nelson Cruz, Marwin Gonzalez, Rich Hill, Trevor May and Jake Odorizzi.  St. Peter, the club president, told Sports Headliners he is uncertain whether the Twins will negotiate with all eight and it’s “probably unlikely” all the free agents will be on the 2021 spring training roster.

St. Peter declined to talk about specific Twins free agents but acknowledged there are big decisions ahead (presumably at the top of the list are Cruz, Odorizzi and Gonzalez). He didn’t commit his organization to signing free agents from other teams, although he said that is certainly a possibility—along with possible trades and promoting players from within the system as ways to improve his club.

Perhaps the Twins indirectly showed their interest in Chaska native Brad Hand when they recently declined the option on the contract of key Minnesota reliever Sergio Romo. The Cleveland Indians have also declined an option on Hand who last season was 2-1 with a 2.05 ERA and an American League-leading 16 saves.

Because of the pandemic this will be an offseason like no other as the 30 MLB franchises show how much, or little, they are willing to pay players, starting with free agents. Sportico interviewed MLB commissioner Rob Manfred who said in a recent story teams amassed $8.3 billion in debt from financial lenders and lost $2.8 to $3 billion in operational expenses this year. Manfred is cautious about what baseball will look like in 2021.

St. Peter referred to the “economic carnage” of 2020 but didn’t offer details about Twins finances. “We’re no different,” he said.

The Twins won the AL Central for a second consecutive season. “We really like our club,” St. Peter said. “You’re always looking for ways to improve, and that’s what the offseason will be about.”

The 2020 Twins often impressed with their pitching and defense. “Our offense was average, which I think was surprising,” St. Peter said. “We expected our offense to be better than that. But pitching and defense is what wins championships at the end of the day. …”

The goal of management is to head out of spring training with an improved team capable of reaching the World Series, St. Peter said.

The NHL’s 2021 Winter Classic scheduled for January 1 at Target Field has been postponed, but St. Peter is hopeful his venue will eventually host the game that was to be played between the Minnesota Wild and St. Louis Blues. He also said college football at Target Field remains of interest with St. Thomas being among possibilities to participate in a game.

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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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