Head coach P.J. Fleck spoke and took questions for about fifteen minutes Tuesday in Indianapolis. Here’s a quick Minnesota Media Day Recap.
The “Encore Four”
Fleck started by mentioning the four Gopher players present at Big Ten Media Days: quarterback Tanner Morgan, offensive lineman John-Michael Schmitz, linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin, and safety Tyler Nubin. Morgan and Schmitz, along with running back Mohamed Ibrahim and wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, are all taking advantage of the “freebie” 2020 season to play a sixth year. According to Fleck, they refer to themselves as the “encore four”.
Ibrahim, you’ll remember, rushed for over 1,000 yards in the shortened 2020 season, but tore his Achilles tendon in the first game of 2021. He unexpectedly chose to forego the NFL draft and remain with the Gophers for 2022. Fleck referred to Ibrahim as “one of the best people you’ll ever meet”, saying that his decision to return played a role in the rest of the “encore four” doing the same. He added that Ibrahim’s experience is a huge asset to the rest of the team, especially the younger players.
Balance on Offense
Fleck also responded to a question about balance, after a season in which the team leaned (very) heavily on the run game. He talked about wanting to be able to do what was necessary to win each individual game, rather than running and passing about the same amount.
“…if we have to throw for 350, we need to be able to throw for 350. If we have to run for 350 to win, then we have to find a way to run for 350… back in 2019, we had two First Team All-Big Ten wide receivers for the first time in the history of the league and also had a 1,000-yard rusher. Last year we lose five tailbacks, four of our receivers miss three to four-plus games, and everybody says what happened? We still won nine games.”
Big Ten Newcomers
While it won’t be official this season, Fleck was asked about the addition of USC and UCLA to the conference. He pointed out that after getting his coaching start in the MAC, where bus rides of up to eight or nine hours are common (and for weeknight games, nonetheless), he’s not concerned about the travel for football, acknowledging that other sports may find it onerous. He pointed out that the University has a lot of alumni on the West Coast, and that reaching the L.A. market is a good thing for the conference.
Return of Ciarocca
The last question Fleck took was regarding offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarocca, who returns after a two-year sojourn to Penn State. It was under Ciarocca that the Gophers went 10-2, upset #4 Penn State, and beat Auburn in the Outback Bowl in 2019. The self-deprecating Fleck described it this way:
“He makes me a better head football coach. One thing I can do really well is hire people that are way smarter than me. It’s out there about my 18 ACT score three times. You hire people who are way smarter than you, and you can find a way to move up pretty quick. That’s what I found a way to do.”
So if you missed it, there’s your Minnesota Media Day Recap. Just over a month to go until kickoff!