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Spring Practice Notebook: Gophers practice at Vikings' TCO Performance Center

04/09/2019, 7:45pm CDT
By Daniel House

The Gophers took a very special detour for Tuesday’s spring practice session. They loaded busses and traveled to the Minnesota Vikings’ TCO Performance Center in Eagan. For some Minnesota players, it was an opportunity to check out the new practice facility of their favorite NFL team. Not only that, but it was a learning opportunity set up by the coaching staff. 

"We’re all here to support our Vikings the best we can. It’s a tremendous experience for our young people. We get to come practice at an NFL facility,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “It’s simulating a road-type game. We’re doing everything we can to simulate every possible situation and scenario in the spring."

For players like Minnesota pass rusher Carter Coughlin, it was the first chance to play on the field of a childhood NFL team. 

“I grew up a Vikings fan. I grew up a Minnesota fan, that’s about it,” Coughlin said after practice. “So I’ve never been on a Vikings field, so it was really, really cool to practice out here and see all of the facilities.”  

During the 90-minute practice session, the team worked on individual and situational components as they prepare for their spring game on Saturday morning at TCF Bank Stadium. With large amounts of snowfall in the forecast for this week, Fleck said the program has contingency plans ready just in case they are unable to use the stadium.

“We have answers. We haven’t officially come out and said those, but we have answers. I just want to see how real [the snow] is,” Fleck said. “We’re definitely having a spring game. Our players deserve it.”

Panagos is making an impression
This offseason, the Gophers continued to grow physically and added several new additions to the coaching staff, including defensive line coach Jim Panagos. A former assistant for the Vikings, Panagos was making his return back to the organization he spent four seasons with. During defensive line drills, it is clear to see the impact he is having on the development of young pass rushers in the system. Head coach P.J. Fleck has been impressed with his energy and coaching style. 

“I see a lot of progress on the D-Line,” Fleck said. "Having Jim Panagos on this staff — it’s changed our D-Line. You can just see the energy, the passion, the desire and not that we didn’t have it before, but Jim Panagos, there’s a realism to him.”

Pass rusher Carter Coughlin works with Panagos on a daily basis and has noticed his unique coaching philosophy. It doesn’t mirror anything Coughlin has been a part of in his past three seasons at Minnesota. He often finds himself going into his defensive line coach’s office to chat.

“Coach Panagos is unbelievable, seriously. First of all, he’s such a good dude. I go in his office every day just to talk with him. He’s super high energy and he’s got like a different pass rush philosophy than any of the other coaches I’ve had,” Coughlin said. “For me, it’s like kind of a culmination of putting together all of the things I’ve learned over the four years and I think that’s going to really make me a much better player than I have been in recent years. It’s cool getting a different perspective from somebody like Coach Pangagos who has clearly proven himself with all of the guys he has developed." 

Outside of Panagos, the addition of Rod Chance has brought a fresh perspective to the defensive back room. Chance was heavily influenced by Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason, who has a strong pedigree coaching defensive backs. Fleck is noticing the impact it is having on young players like cornerback Terell Smith.

“I think Rod Chance has done a great job with our guys. Bringing a lot more of that Coach Mason from Vanderbilt, real DB technique,” Fleck said. “That’s what set him apart from everybody else when I interviewed him. Just how fundamentally and detail sound he really is."

Other Notes:

P.J. Fleck directly mentioned the growth of tight end Jake Paulson, who has noticeably improved his physical strength and pass-catching skills. 

“He’s probably had one of the best off-season’s of anybody. He’s bigger, he’s stronger, he’s more athletic, more confident, worked really hard in the ball catching in the offseason,” Fleck said. “He’s just a better overall player.” 

The entire tight end group has made made strides under the direction of Clay Patterson, a coach who has a strong background in a multitude of different offensive schemes and philosophies.

“Clay Patterson is doing a great job of developing those tight ends,” Fleck said. “They’re still very young and they’re playing at a high level.”

Rodney Smith easing back
Running back Rodney Smith did a little work on the field during the practice, but he continues to move slowly as he recovers from a torn ACL he suffered in August. 

"He probably could do more, but we are being very cautious. Him and Shannon both,” Fleck said. “We’ve kind of taken just a step back to be able to make sure they’re getting all the proper care.”

Quarterbacks looking more comfortable
Head coach P.J. Fleck is noticing more confidence from the quarterbacks with another year in the system. The progressions seem to be clicking and they aren’t making the mistakes that occurred frequently in past spring sessions. 

"You can just see the comfort in the system with both of those guys,” Fleck said. “They are working on 500 and 600-level-type things instead of just going backwards. Getting two steps, three steps forward and going two steps back. They are making huge, huge gains.”

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