Fleck’s Minnesota debut has arrived

Published 9:13 pm Wednesday, August 30, 2017

MINNEAPOLIS — For nearly eight months, P.J Fleck has exuberantly advertised and tirelessly recruited for the program he has taken over in Minnesota.

Game time has finally arrived.

The Gophers are about to become more than simply the subject of offseason intrigue and speculation about their 36-year-old whirlwind of a head coach . They’ll soon begin producing on-field evidence, for better or worse, of Fleck’s ability to translate unprecedented success at Western Michigan to the mighty Big Ten.

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Ready or not, here comes the unrelenting power conference experience.

“You get to be one of the 14 head coaches in that league and be with some of the greatest football coaches that have ever lived,” Fleck said this week. “That’s an honor. I am humbled and honored to be in this conference, but just running out in the stadium, that’s not the time to think about it. There is a game to play, and that’s how I’ve always approached it.”

The Gophers host Buffalo, one of Fleck’s former Mid-American Conference foes, in their season opener on Thursday night.

“He brings the juice every single day for practice. If he turns it up a little bit more for a game, that’s just like forbidden energy,” senior defensive tackle Steven Richardson said. “It’s crazy to even think he can go a little bit higher.”

The Gophers would settle for some elevation by Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda, the raw duo dispatched for the quarterback job share in succession of Mitch Leidner. Perhaps either Croft, a sophomore, or Rhoda, a senior, will separate from the other with a standout performance against Buffalo. With a combined eight career appearances by the two, including only one start by Rhoda last year, Minnesota’s collection of quarterbacks is the most inexperienced of any power conference team.

“As you go through the season, whoever is playing better is probably going to get more playing time,” Fleck said, adding: “I want to be able to make sure they can play, run the system, and if they make a mistake, have the opportunity to respond to the mistakes.”

Here are some other key angles to follow during the game:

Running men

As a young team that’s unsettled at quarterback, the Gophers will again seek significant production from running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. They’ve shouldered the load for two years, and as juniors they’re both in position to be among the Big Ten’s best rushers.

“We need people to step up and not just think of Rodney and Shannon, ‘Oh, we’ve got them. We’ll just lean on them,” Fleck said.

Buffalo ranked 124th out of the 128 teams at the FBS level last season with an average of 253.3 yards per game allowed, so the Bulls aren’t guessing about what they’re going to face on Thursday night.

“I’m sure they want to get them on track early and often,” coach Lance Leipold said.

Staying healthy

Twenty-two players had offseason surgeries for the Gophers, with the offensive line hit particularly hard. That’s where injuries must be avoided this year, without much proven depth behind the starting five. Brooks is another player with designs on better preserving his body. He missed three games to injury last season.

“Honestly, I like contact. So when I watch film, I don’t try to see, ‘OK, that’s a point where I shouldn’t take a hit,’” Brooks said. “But that’s a new thing that I feel that I can definitely sit down to start looking.”

Buffalo goes big

Buffalo has only played Minnesota once before, in 2001. The Bulls are plenty familiar with the territory, though. Leipold won six NCAA Division III championships in eight years at Wisconsin-Whitewater before being hired at Buffalo. Sophomore quarterback Tyree Jackson, who was recruited by Fleck at Western Michigan, is from Norton Shores less than two hours away from the Kalamazoo campus.

So bring on the Big Ten.

“When you grow up in Michigan, that’s kind of what you wish for,” Jackson said, “so I think that’ll be fun.”

Catching on

The Gophers are almost as raw at wide receiver as they are at quarterback. Sophomore Tyler Johnson, who saw some meaningful action last year, has emerged as one of the leaders of the group. Demetrius Douglas, a true freshman from Portland, Oregon, and the son of former Gophers wide receiver Omar Douglas, is expected to receive significant playing time.