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August 8, 2021

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Most media authorities are respectful but not excited about the season ahead for the Golden Gophers. Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern are consistently predicted to finish ahead of Minnesota in the Big Ten West. Top 25 national rankings? Not for the Gophers.

Minnesota, though, is positioned to surprise. The Gophers can match or exceed most Big Ten rivals in the number of returning starters. If quarterback is the most important position in college football, the Gophers boast Tanner Morgan now in his fifth year with the program. Offensive and defensive lines also determine outcomes of games and Minnesota’s lines have experience and depth. The Gophers also have one of the nation’s best running backs in Mohamed Ibrahim.

The Gophers have prove-it positions like wide receiver and linebacker to answer but coach P.J. Fleck’s team has the look of a surprise West Division champion. After an 11-2 season in 2019, Minnesota fell back to 3-4 in the year (2020) of COVID. That record and Minnesota’s defensive woes in the early part of the schedule have impacted predictions of media reps from newspapers, magazines and online.

But that was last year, a season in which the Gophers lost two games by a total of four points and saw the defense improve in November and December. Minnesota, with minimal spring and fall practice time and trying to replace defensive stars from the 2019 team, struggled for awhile last year but got better under the direction of its talented defensive coordinator, Joe Rossi.

Rossi has a line that has added transfer Nyles Pinckney from Clemson and Val Martin from North Carolina State. Boye Mafe, a gifted pass rusher, is a potential All-Big Ten defensive end. The other defensive end, Esezi Otomeow, is a sleeper talent who could do big things. There are several other d-linemen who can play and collectively give the Gophers a steady rotation to keep fresh players on the field.

Based on spring practice Morgan acknowledged the defensive line improvement. “There’s a lot of guys that can make a lot of plays,” he said.

Fleck and his players believe they can beat anyone on their schedule, including Big Ten bully Ohio State with its many gifted players. Because of Minnesota’s talent and experience, Fleck said the program has a “players-led team.” Veteran receiver Chris-Autman Bell describes the Gophers as “super connected.” Mafe said that because of COVID last year it was difficult to bond, but the “chemistry” is much better now.

The coaches and players have stuck together during difficult times. Minnesota’s number of players transferring out of the program ranks among the lowest in the Big Ten during 2020 and 2021, despite the social unrest in the city and other parts of the country. The coaching staff has also remained stable.

“I think one of the big words for this team on the field (in 2021) is consistency and how we play,” Fleck said. “Last year I didn’t think we played consistent enough for a lot of reasons, starting with me.”

In 2020 Minnesota’s inexperience on defense and special teams was problematic. COVID limited practice time and preparation, and sometimes there was unexpected confusion on the field. For the Nebraska game, the Gophers had more than 30 players missing because of COVID but still won the game. This fall the pandemic could be less impactful and Minnesota will take the field with more experience including on special teams where two transfers with prior college success plan to make the field goal and extra point production considerably better. “We know we’re going to have to win really close games,” Fleck said.

The Gophers intend to do just that, with Morgan noting internal expectations for the season are far more optimistic than those of media authorities.

Worth Noting

Last week Fleck acknowledged past recruiting misjudgments. Although he didn’t name units, presumably the transfers from other programs last offseason were corrective moves in the defensive line, linebacker and kicker units. He remains committed to building his program with players just out of high school.

Gopher transfers include Martin, Pinckney, linebacker Jack Gibbens (Abilene Christian) and kickers Will Mobley (Temple) and Matthew Trickett (Kent State).

Newcomer of the year in Dinkytown? Defensive tackle Pinckney was a captain at Clemson and is likely determined to have a breakout final college season to position himself for the NFL Draft. Another candidate is true freshman cornerback Justin Walley, who impressed in the spring after early enrollment at the U and following a prep career where he was named Mississippi Mr. Football.

In a state long known for its successful businesses, name, image and likeness compensation for college athletes has the potential to be a positive for the Gophers. Coaches, though, can’t orchestrate paying of players because of NCAA policy and it will require leaders in the business community to show interest in compensating Gophers for their NIL.

Mo Ibrahim

For now it sounds like whatever NIL money comes to the Gophers, will be spread around. Ibrahim, who could be a Heisman Trophy candidate this fall, is committed to sharing. “…Any money that’s coming in is definitely going to get split with my five, six, seven, eight offensive linemen,” he said.

Speculation, including from a Sports Headliners source, is North Dakota State wants to join a soon to be revamped Big 12 Conference after the defections of Oklahoma and Texas. Jumping from FCS to a Power Five Conference will be a reality check for the football Bison who have built much of their success with rosters filled with Minnesotans.

Happy 85th birthday today to former Gopher quarterback and assistant coach Dick Larson. The charismatic Minneapolis native remains active in the work place running Integrity Wealth Management in St. Paul.

Herb Brooks, who tragically died in an auto accident August 11, 2003, would have been 84 last Thursday. The legendary former Gophers and Olympic hockey coach is still missed by countless friends and admirers. A master coach and a person of the highest character.

Former Gophers wide receiver Adam Mayer is working for Palo Alto-based Archer, and is recruiting and hiring engineers for flight, aeronautics and computer systems. Dad Barry Mayer was a starting running back on Gopher teams in the late 1960s.

The reservation deadline is Monday for the Football Hall of Fame Banquet coming up this Friday at the DoubleTree Hotel in St. Louis Park. The event is sponsored by the Minnesota Football Coaches Association and tickets can be ordered via www.mnfootballcoaches.com

Hall of Fame Inductees from the high school division are: Bill D. Bailey, Starbuck; Richard Robinson, Minneapolis North and Karl Deis, Mora. College Division inductees are: Mike Plinske, Bethel University and Terry Horan, Concordia College.

Butch Nash Assistant Coach Award winners for 2020 are: Jeff Boonstra, NLS; Joe Coenen, Chanhassen; Todd Hamer, Lakeville North; Mark Harris, Stillwater; Kevin Hulke, Minnesota Valley Lutheran; Gregory Johnson, Verndale; John Kyvig, Andover; Matthew Nelson, Kasson-Mantorville; Daniel Svoboda, GSL; Andrew Stephenson, Spring Lake Park; Michael Wenninger, Luverne.

Several other award winners will be announced Friday including the State Coach of the Year.

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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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