MINNEAPOLIS – The University of Minnesota football team begins fall camp Aug. 1, but on Tuesday coach PJ Fleck praised his program at Big Ten Media Days as he enters his sixth season. with the Gophers.
Fleck is 35-23 in five seasons at Minnesota, including 21-22 in Big Ten play. He is 3-0 in bowl games with the Gophers, including the 18-6 win over West Virginia last year in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. The regular season ended with a dominating 23-13 victory over Wisconsin at Huntington Bank Stadium, but Fleck said he failed as a head coach in the offseason.
That’s because the Gophers suffered a stunning non-conference home loss to Bowling Green and the Big Ten picked up wins over Illinois and Iowa away from representing the West in the Big League title game. Ten. This is why 2022 is more than ever the right time for the program to take this next step.
“There are a lot of positive things in our program, I can’t wait to see what happens this season. It’s a fun time, it’s a committed team and probably more than I’ve ever had in the past. my six years in Minnesota,” Fleck told reporters at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. “Probably the most committed team and I can’t wait to see what they have.”
The Gophers are led by what’s called the “Encore 4,” a group of four players who are all returning to their sixth season with the program. Quarterback Tanner Morgan has two degrees from college and recently married, John Michael Schmitz is the lone returning starter from the offensive line, Mo Ibrahim is returning from a torn Achilles against Ohio State and Chris Autman-Bell leads a group of best-five receivers back.
The most exciting part of this group might be Ibrahim. He rushed for 163 yards and two scores against the Buckeyes before a torn Achilles ended his 2022 season. Recently named to the Maxwell Award Watch List, Ibrahim was the 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year after rushing for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns in just seven games.
Ibrahim is currently eighth in Gophers program history with 3,003 career rushing yards in 29 games.
“Here’s a guy who could have gone to the NFL after tearing his Achilles tendon. I think we’ve all seen it, he was ready for a huge season. Decided to come back not just for himself , but for his teammates,” Fleck said. “He did it for the team and to put a different end to what happened. I think he is one of the best defenders in the country, but more importantly one of the best people you will meet of your whole life.”
Fleck and the Gophers had a top-three offense in the Big Ten last season, despite losing Ibrahim, Trey Potts and Bryce Williams to injuries. Potts was also cleared to train this fall after his season ended with an undisclosed injury at Purdue that required him to spend six nights in an Indiana-area hospital.
Fleck’s challenge is to stay at this high level of running with four new starters on the offensive line.
Morgan, Schmitz, linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin and safety Tyler Nubin joined Fleck at Big Ten Media Days. He called Sori-Marin, the team’s best returning tackle, “the ultimate connector in our defense.”
Sori-Marin and Nubin were key parts of a defense that was No. 3 in running in the Big Ten last season and finished in the top 10 in the nation in scoring and total defense.
Entering his sixth year with the Gophers, Fleck stressed the importance of having a player-driven team.
“The engaged part is always duty versus will. Our leadership in this football team is fully engaged in all of this. They want to do the job that is needed, they are eager to do it. They went out onto the pitch doing a job not required, doing things not required together,” Fleck said. “This team is fully committed to each other, and it’s fun to watch. They don’t have time to mess around, they go straight in, do their job and improve.”
Fleck has every reason to believe the Gophers can compete in the Big Ten West in 2022. They’ve had at least four players drafted in the past two full seasons, which were also at least nine winning seasons. This hadn’t happened in Minnesota since 1900-1905.
He feels they have the talent and work ethic to take the program to the next level.
“When your best players are your hardest workers, I think you have something really special,” Fleck said.
The Gophers open the 2022 regular season in just 37 days on Thursday, Sept. 1 against former Minnesota coach Jerry Kill and New Mexico State at Huntington Bank Stadium.