Elite crew headed to Big Ten media days

Published 12:06 pm Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The 2018 Big Ten football media days will take place on Monday and Tuesday in Chicago at the Chicago Marriott Downtown Magnificent Mile. Representing the Gophers in the two-day media blitz will be head coach P.J. Fleck, senior running back Rodney Smith and junior linebackers Thomas Barber and Carter Coughlin.

Fleck led a young and inexperienced Gopher squad in 2017, as 49 of Minnesota’s 110 players (44.5 percent) were freshmen or redshirt freshmen and 76 (69 percent) were underclassmen. Fleck guided Minnesota to a 5-7 record and those five wins were the most by a first-year Gopher head coach new to the program since the legendary Murray Warmath won seven games in 1954.

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Fleck won his Gopher debut against Buffalo, which made him the school’s first head coach to win his debut since John Gutekunst in 1986 (before Fleck, Minnesota’s six most recent head coaches all lost their first game). Minnesota then posted a dominating 48-14 win at Oregon State, which made Fleck the first Gopher coach to win a true road opener since 1954 when Warmath and the Gophers won 46-7 at Pittsburgh. Minnesota’s 34-point win at Oregon State was the Gophers’ 10th largest margin of victory in a road game since 1920 and largest since 2006. The 48 points were the most the Gophers scored on the road since they beat Northwestern 49-21 in 1980.

Minnesota posted three 30-point wins in 2017, as it beat Oregon State by 34, Nebraska by 33 and Middle Tennessee by 31. The last time Minnesota won three games by 30 points in the same season was 2005 when it started the year with three straight with three straight 30-point wins

Off the field, Fleck and his team can often be found at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital and gave back to the community by hosting a diaper drive, canned food drive and turkey drive this year. In the classroom, Minnesota has posted program record GPAs under Fleck.

The Jonesboro, Ga., native has rushed 626 times (sixth all-time in school history) for 2,805 yards (eighth all-time in school history) in 37 career games. He has scored 21 career rushing touchdowns, which ranks tied for ninth in school history and his career long rush of 70 yards came at Maryland in 2016. He has 10 career 100-yard rushing games, which ranks eighth in program history, and he rushed for a career high 153 yards against Purdue in 2016.

Smith, who has already graduated with a degree in human development and youth studies, also excels in the passing and return game. He has 56 career receptions for 419 yards and has returned 22 kicks for 626 yards, which included two touchdowns. His career long 100-yard kick return came against Nebraska in 2017 and in that game he had 279 all-purpose yards (10 receiving, 134 rushing and 135 kick return), which was tied for the seventh most in school history.

Smith has 3,850 all-purpose yards (2,805 rushing, 419 receiving and 626 kick return) on his resume and ranks eighth in school history. He need 1,260 all-purpose yards this season to break Darrel Thompson’s school record of 5,109.

In his career, Smith has been named All-Big Ten Third Team (2016) and All-Big Ten Honorable Mention (2017). He also received the team’s Bronko Nagurski Award (Team MVP) in 2016 and 2017 and in 2016 he was honored with the team’s Bruce Smith Award (Outstanding Offensive Player) and was named the Bob McNamara Offensive Back of the Year.

Barber emerged as a breakout star last season as a sophomore. The legacy Gopher started all 12 games and finished first on the team with 115 tackles (third in the Big Ten), which included 76 solo stops (first in the Big Ten).

The Plymouth, Minn., native made 10.5 tackles for loss (second on the team and 18th in the Big Ten), while forcing three fumbles (tied for second in the Big Ten) and recovering two fumbles (tied for second in the Big Ten). He recorded double-digit tackles in seven Big Ten games and also notched one interception en route to being named All-Big Ten Third Team (media) and All-Big Ten Honorable Mention (coaches).

Coughlin excelled as a rush end last season. He started all 12 games and recorded 37 tackles. He led the team with 11.5 tackles for loss (16th in the Big Ten) and 6.5 sacks (sixth in the Big Ten). The Eden Prairie, Minn., resident also forced one fumble and was named All-Big Ten Honorable Mention and also excelled in the classroom as he earned Academic All-Big Ten distinction.