The Gophers are set to open the regular season Thursday night during a home matchup with New Mexico State. P.J. Fleck is ready to see his young team on the field for the first time in 2018. When Fleck’s players are under the lights, he wants them to remember one message – have fun.
“We are practicing like professionals. I loved how this team practiced this year, but then you’ve gotta play like a youngster, you’ve gotta play like a kid. You have to go out there and have fun and actually play,” Fleck said. “We’re still coaching and playing a game. As we’ve evolved here, I think in the last five to ten years, the game and the fun part has been taken out at times for young people and that’s why we run our program the way we do.”
As the Gophers field one of the youngest rosters in the NCAA, Fleck understands there will be growing pains throughout the season. However, having fun and relying on the inexperience will help the program grow in the future. There will be moments where freshmen mistakes are made, but Fleck said the staff recruited players who could make an immediate impact in the Big Ten. When fans look through the depth chart, they’ll find young players scattered throughout. More than 50% of the roster will be composed of freshmen in 2018.
“You can ask me about a lot of freshman and I’m probably going to tell you they’re going to play. You don’t put those guys on your two-deep sitting there saying, ‘well, I don’t think he’s going to play, we’re going to redshirt him.’ We don’t have that option,” Fleck said. “Remember, most of our depth is filled with freshman and that’s why we recruited them. That’s why it was such a highly ranked class. We knew we had to get players that could come in here and play in the Big Ten in their first year.”
The Gophers had a chance to watch their Week 1 opponent on Saturday night as New Mexico State hosted Wyoming.
New Mexico State struggled to hold up against one of the top Group of Five defenses in a 29-7 loss. They managed to accumulate just 135 yards and seven total first downs as the Cowboys’ pass rush dominated the line of scrimmage. The inability to sustain any offensive success, kept New Mexico State on the field for lengthy stretches. Wyoming dominated the time of possession, 40:41 to 17:33. It skewed how the Aggies performed defensively.
New Mexico State featured one of the top third-down defenses in the country last season and compiled the second-most sacks in the NCAA. They also qualified for their first bowl game in 57 years. However, the combined opponent record during their seven total wins was 21-65. No matter, what P.J. Fleck isn’t taking a fast and physical team lightly.
“I will say that Wyoming defense is one of the best defenses, I don’t even know necessarily, just in the group of five, that’s one of the best defenses in the country,” Fleck said. “And I think everybody saw that last night. We’re not going to let one game, whether a win or a loss of our opponent dictate how we do things…I don’t think it’s just a one-game evaluation, right? This is accumulation of what they did last year.”
As Fleck enters his second season at the helm of Minnesota’s football program, he is reflecting upon the impact his “Row The Boat” culture has made across the globe and state. The “Never Give Up” mantra was created to carry on the legacy of his second son, Colt, who passed away from a heart condition. Fleck brought the mantra with him to Minnesota and carried on the mission. It has been a way to inspire others and carry on his son’s spirit. Since the head coach arrived in Minnesota, Row The Boat has stretched across the state.
The three components of a boat are meant to apply to all phases of life. The oar is the energy, the boat is the sacrifice and the compass is the direction of your life. Fleck has received letters from people who have been inspired by his message. He responds to as many as possible between film sessions. The head coach has made it an integral aspect of how the football program at Minnesota interacts with the community.
“I’ve told you before that as a football coach, we have a platform and what you do with that platform is very powerful. You have a message and whatever you decide to share that message to other people, that’s your decision,” Fleck said. “We decide to say, ok, yes, wins and losses are going to be judged on me as a football coach, but me as person and somebody who’s a public figure, I want to be looked as somebody who can bring hope and motivation and inspiration to families who are dealing with things – that maybe they have nowhere else to turn. Maybe they need something else, they need a jump-start.”
The message has rubbed off on his players, who spend time in the community through a variety of events. A new “Row The Boat” Wall was recently dedicated at the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital. For Fleck, there’s more to life than just football – there’s a serving and giving component.
The goal is easy: “inspire and motivate other people to be better, to not give up. Whether people have lost somebody or have been through and beat it, to be able to either celebrate and create a foundation, create a fund, live somehow in memory of that person, or celebrate that person still being here, you know, through that type of never-give-up attitude, it's inspiring," he said.
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