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P.J. Fleck previews Fresno State, describes his young wide receivers

09/04/2018, 3:15pm CDT
By Daniel House

Thoughts of a 48-10 win are in the past as the Gophers prepare to host a talented Fresno State at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. 

A 10-win team last year, the Bulldogs are considered one of the top “Group of Five” teams in the country this season. They won their opener 79-13 on Saturday against Idaho with the help of seven takeaways, including five interceptions. 

With veteran Jeff Tedford coaching the Bulldogs, P.J. Fleck and his staff know they’ll have to play well to hold off a balanced team like Fresno State. 

“They are a tough football team. This is a very, very good football team that’s coming in here,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “This is a team that is picked by some media outlets to be the Group of Five team that goes and plays in a New Year’s six bowl.”

Not only does Fresno State feature an opportunistic defense, but their offense is loaded with a talented core of wide receivers and a passing game led by senior Marcus McMaryion. The dual-threat quarterback has passing ability and dynamic rushing talent the Gophers must pay close attention to. 

“They know [McMaryion] can run, they will run him, but they’re not going to run him first in every play. When he does, he’s going to be incredibly dangerous,” Fleck said. “When he wants to throw first, they do a great job of changing launch points of where he throws from, so he’s really never in the same place twice.”

McMaryion passed for 2,726 yards, 14 touchdowns, and five interceptions in 14 games last season. In 2017, he didn’t take a single sack and threw an interception on less than 1.5 percent of his total attempts. P.J. Fleck credits Jeff Tedford for developing the former Oregon State transfer into a talented quarterback.

“Everywhere he’s been [Jeff Tedford] had elite quarterbacks. Same thing. Their quarterback at Fresno State is tremendous. Coach Tedford’s been a part of Trent Dilfer, Aaron Rodgers – he’s won wherever he’s been.”

There’s no doubt the Gophers will be tested when McMaryion and dynamic wide receiver KeeSean Johnson connect in the passing game. 

Andries adjusts to playing guard 

Young offensive lineman Blaise Andries is receiving his first game experience as a redshirt freshman. Not only that, but he’s transitioning from tackle to guard. It’s a new position Andries has been learning since last year. He was a notable performer as the Gophers rushed for 295 yards in Thursday night’s 48-10 win. There are still things Andries is adjusting through game experience, but P.J. Fleck has noticed his gradual improvement. 

“I think he’s gotten so much better from even last year from January, from spring ball, to the start of training camp,” Fleck said. “He’s very intelligent. He over analyzes everything, which is a good thing. He’s one of the smartest people we have on our football team.”

With limited scholarship numbers on the offensive line, having position flexibility for players like Andries is more difficult. In the future, the coaching staff would like to have three full groups of offensive linemen, but right now, scholarship numbers make it impossible. Moving forward, the goal is to have 18 linemen on scholarship. 

“You’d like to be able to have three full groups, we’re not even close to having that,” Fleck said. “We were able to fill it with a little Band-Aid, a little bit with taking seven offensive linemen, but we’re still not close to the scholarship numbers at that position that we need to be successful -- to be able to move people around, to create the depth.”

The Gophers’ young pass catchers 

Head coach P.J. Fleck calls redshirt freshman Chris Autman-Bell “the crab” because of how well he squeezes the ball and brings in passes. His natural hands have been a welcome addition to a wide receiver group loaded with young talent like Demetrius Douglas, Rashod Bateman and Autman-Bell. The trio brought in ten catches for 99 yards in the team’s home-opener. As a group, they will only improve with more continuity and experience in games. 

“I haven’t seen many people catch the ball like [Autman-Bell] does naturally. Not only him, but Demetrius Douglas starting to become a wide-out that we need him to be there,” Fleck said. “Rashod Bateman, you got the chance to see what he can do. You got a glimpse of it because I would have loved to see him break that tackle and that guy not be there so you can actually see the type of speed that man has.”

With help from veteran Tyler Johnson, the young players have an example to follow. Johnson had five catches for 100 yards and a pair of touchdowns in last week’s win. His improvement from a technical standpoint has helped him gain extensive separation from opposing defensive backs. Fleck said the main lapse from Johnson on Thursday was a dropped third down pass in the first quarter. It’s a play the coach thought might have impacted the team’s rhythm. 

“Ty’s been a consistent player for us,” Fleck said. “I would love to see him catch the third down to start it earlier for us because I think if he catches that third down pass, we get into our rhythm a lot faster. We’re going to have to rely on a lot of young guys to get us in a rhythm and start fast.”

Annexstad’s calm demeanor stands out

True freshman walk-on Zack Annexstad made his debut in Thursday’s 48-10 win. He completed 16 of his 33 passes for 220 yards and two passing touchdowns. As he settled into a rhythm, Annexstad flashed his confidence, poise and accuracy at all three levels of the field. There were a few instances where Annexstad left opportunities out there, but P.J. Fleck said he didn’t let it impact his performance. 

“You can tell when he missed a throw, it was like complete disappointment, like he knew he could make the throw,” Fleck said. “He already heard me in his ear or Coach Ciarrocca in his ear and he changed it already.”

Fleck noted there’s certainly areas the young quarterback is trying to improve, but the confidence, poise and calm demeanor stood out from the true freshman quarterback. Following a fumble in the first half, Fleck said Annexstad wasn’t phased. 

“Literally, I mean after he dropped the fumble, which he’s gotta make that play and he knows that -- he comes over puts his hand on my shoulder and says, ‘coach, we’re gonna be all right.’ That’s the type of confidence he has and that’s very hard to find as a true freshman,” Fleck said.

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