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Notebook: Gophers showing gains in the weight room, Fleck previews spring practices

03/07/2019, 1:45pm CST
By Daniel House

Since his early days at Western Michigan, P.J. Fleck and his staff have been using a variety of different techniques and strategies to help their program evolve. One of the major areas of emphasis has been in the weight room. Dan Nichol, Director of Athletic Performance, along with his staff, have developed their own methods to train and develop the physical traits of Minnesota’s athletes.

Beginning in 2013, the staff started collecting athletic testing data during the eight-week offseason workout period. Among things they tally include: sub 4.6s, sub 4.5s, 10-foot broad jumps, 350-pound bench pressers, 500-plus squatters, 350-plus cleaners and vertical jumps. The Gophers just wrapped up this offseason phase and head coach P.J. Fleck was impressed with the results. 

“This is the best year we’ve ever had. Every year, at each place, we’ve gone up and up and up and up. And then here, we started and we continued to grow,” Fleck said. “Last year was better than the year before, but this year, we absolutely annihilated what we had done in the last two years. That’s a credit to our staff and a credit to our players and their commitment level to what we’re doing.”

These strides have been noticeable as Minnesota rapidly developed the physical profiles of many young players over the course of two seasons. It’s clear to see the team has emphasized recruiting prototype athletes, while developing their traits and technique. This has been especially noticeable at the skill spots and in the trenches on both sides of the ball. As the 2018 season progressed, Minnesota started to control the line of scrimmage, averaging 208 rushing yards per game during the final four weeks. The level of physicality was noteworthy, considering four underclassmen started in Minnesota’s 34-10 bowl in over Georgia Tech. 

Now, with offseason workout metrics improving, the Gophers may be climbing another hurdle as they physically develop a young roster. 

Continuing to bolster the offensive line 
From Fleck’s perspective, continuing to build the offensive line is one of the most important aspects of sustaining success in the Big Ten Conference. 

“[Offensive line play is] the name of the game in the Big Ten. You look historically at people who have been able to win championships. You look at people who have been able to win at a high level consistently, they pretty much have the best offensive line, or one of the best offensive lines in the Big Ten,” Fleck said. “It’s a very, very physical conference. It’s a long season…it is a battle every single week, especially up front. 

Over the past three years, Minnesota has invested heavy recruiting resources into the position. Everyone on staff understands what it takes to win physical Big Ten games. Minnesota hasn’t had an offensive lineman drafted in the past 13 years. It’s a trend Fleck wants to end. Fleck sees the trend shifting, thanks to the unit’s rapid development under offensive line coach Brian Callahan’s. When Fleck arrived, the Gophers had just four offensive linemen to work with during his first set of spring practices. Just a few years later, Fleck sees enormous potential from the entire unit. 

“If you can have bigger, stronger, more athletic, smarter [offensive linemen] and you can continue to develop that every single year, I think you’re going to have a lot of success,” Fleck said. “Remember, we had four [offensive linemen] when we got here, and two years later, I think we are going to have one of the better offensive lines in the Big Ten, I feel that way. I think Brian Callahan has done a great job developing that unit very quickly.”

With Jared Weyler and Donnell Greene graduating, the offensive line will look slightly different in 2019. It’s one of the big areas where competition will occur during spring practices. 

“In terms of the offensive line, it’s going to be a huge competition,” Fleck said. “I can’t tell you where guys are going to play, I can’t tell you whether Blaise Andries is going to be a tackle or a guard, I can’t tell you whether Conner Olson is going to be a guard or a center, I can’t tell you whether Curtis Dunlap is going to be a guard or a tackle -- that will all happen during spring practice. 

Not only that, but the Gophers added several young offensive linemen this season, including Illinois true freshman JJ Guedet. Fleck is especially excited to watch Guedet develop and compete in spring practices. The 6-foot-7, 305-pound offensive tackle weighed just 240 pounds when he originally committed to the team. His physical growth was noticed by the entire team during offseason workouts. It’s the first sign of depth starting to emerge along the Minnesota offensive line. 

"[Guedet is] a true freshman that's come in and basically taken our team by storm," Fleck said. “You might even see him in the mix and then you’ve got Jason Dickson eligible this year, who wasn’t eligible last year to play,” Fleck said. “So you’re going to start to see some other faces too and you’ll start to see some depth at others positions, not just the offensive line.”

If Minnesota’s offensive line plays at a high level, they can capitalize upon all of the returning talent in the backfield. Between four running backs, the Gophers return 1,328 career carries, 6,503 yards and 52 touchdowns. When factoring in wild-cat quarterback Seth Green, 282 yards and eight touchdowns are added to the total.

“That’s unheard of…when you start talking about just those four running backs, you look at all that productivity and then you add to the offensive line, but nothing is guaranteed, they have to go earn it,” Fleck said. 

The new coaching staff additions

Minnesota had several coaches leave for other opportunities this offseason, including defensive backs coach Jahmile Addae. As head coach P.J. Fleck was getting set to hire assistants, he decided to split up duties in the secondary. 

“There’s so much that we do on the backend and I think the backend is really tough to coach when you have just one guy doing it,” Fleck said. “I just thought I overloaded the secondary coaches too much at times, so we decided to flip that.”

In his first full-season as defensive coordinator, Joe Rossi will be making his own mark on the defense, along with three new defensive assistants. Fleck said Rossi is adding his own wrinkles and played a role in the acquisition of coaches. The duo was impressed with Rod Chance, a former quality control coach at Oregon. Chance has a lengthy background in a variety of different schemes and came off the tree of James Franklin and Vanderbilt head coach/defensive guru, Derek Mason. He’ll coach the cornerbacks in his first season at Minnesota. 

“We interviewed a lot of candidates for that job and he was up, up, and away, by far the best candidate and it was awesome to see. It doesn’t matter your resume; it doesn’t matter where you’ve been – who’s the best coach for us? He deserves a lot of credit for being who he is and he got a heck of an opportunity and he’s taking advantage of it.”

In addition to Chance, the team added 32-year-old Maine head coach Joe Harasymiak to coach the safeties. A rising name in the FCS ranks, Harasymiak is a young, energetic coach that will quickly rise up the ranks. His past knowledge as a head coach and coordinator will help Minnesota’s players on the field and in the film room. 

“You’re talking about a guy who gave up [a head coaching job] to come to the University of Minnesota to coach our safeties. I’ve already sat in his room, he’s one of the best teachers I’ve seen,” Fleck said. “He has tons of energy, very intelligent, very smart – he’s got coordinator written all over him. He’s already done that at the FCS level, but he is very, very sharp and our players have adapted to him very quickly and he’s embraced them.”

Outside of the two coaching additions in the secondary, Minnesota hired experienced defensive line coach Jim Panagos. Panagaos was on the Vikings’ defensive staff for four seasons and most recently coached the defensive line at Temple. He and defensive coordinator Joe Rossi crossed paths at Rutgers, as well. According to Fleck, Panagos loved his time in Minnesota and wanted to make a return to the Twin Cities.  

“[Minnesota has] been his favorite place to coach, that’s what his statement was to me, and that goes a long way. His experience with the Vikings is going to help our defensive line,” Fleck said. “You talk about a guy who can match my energy, match my intensity, match the intensity of the culture, it’s off-the-charts. The more people you have coaching in an energetic way, in a positive way, that helps the program. Jim is one of those guys that can do that. Very intelligent, very smart coach and he’s going to get the most out of our D-line.”

Notes: 

- Antoine Winfield Jr. has been cleared for contact in spring practices and is 100 percent healthy. 

“It’s nice to be able to see Antoine healthy again, smiling,” Fleck said. He is having a tremendous offseason, a tremendous offseason, I can’t wait to get him back on the field. I know he’s biting at the bit.” 

Nonetheless, Fleck hinted he may limit reps for those recovering from injuries. This will help youngers players receive additional snaps to aid their development. 

- Fleck said running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith are still recovering from injuries. Smith is farther ahead than Brooks, but neither of them will be ready to participate in spring practices. 

- Redshirt freshman wide receiver Erik Gibson was slowed by an injury last year, but P.J. Fleck mentioned the strides he has made during the offseason program: “his numbers have been off the charts. You watch him do certain drills that you're allowed to do, and you sit there and say, ok, now he has to go play football."

- When asked about the quarterback situation, Fleck didn’t elaborate much, but brought up the experience of both Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad.  
 

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