P.J. Fleck's first seven seasons as a head coach included steady ascents at two different schools — until 2020.
After taking Western Michigan from 1–11 in 2013 to 13–1 in 2016 and Minnesota from 5–7 in 2017 to 11–2 in 2019, Fleck saw his 2020 team sidetracked in the delayed, shortened and interrupted COVID-19 season.
The Gophers lost two games in overtime and won two one-possession games in regulation to finish 3–4. Two games were called off, and they opted out of a bowl game.
Fleck believes that 2020's challenges will be a springboard for this fall. "What they went through together, what they've overcome together, how they've failed together, how they've succeeded together," Fleck says. "They've gone through it together, and we have a lot of guys that have done it. And to me, that is a dangerous football team."
Previewing Minnesota's Offense for 2021
Coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.'s first season at Minnesota did not build on what Kirk Ciarrocca left him when Ciarrocca departed for Penn State after the 2019 season. Minnesota fell in both scoring offense (34.6 to 27.3 points per game) and total offense (432 to 391).
Quarterback Tanner Morgan had set program records with a 3,000-yard, 30-touchdown season in 2019, but the junior saw his quarterback rating, completion percentage and yards per attempt fall year over year.
Sanford, the former Notre Dame coordinator and Western Kentucky head coach, will be counted on to improve in his second season as play-caller. He will have to do so without his best playmaker in the passing game.
Minnesota targeted Rashod Bateman nearly 50 percent of the time, but the junior opted out midseason to get ready for the NFL. Chris Autman-Bell must assume the mantle of No. 1 WR, with Daniel Jackson as his running mate. Fleck says this collection of receivers is the least experienced position group he's had, but it might be his fastest. One player expected to make a contribution is Texas A&M transfer Dylan Wright.
When Fleck came to Minnesota in 2017, he had four healthy offensive linemen available for his first spring. Now, Fleck has quality depth at every spot. The veteran line will allow Minnesota to perfect its zone-running style and enable the smaller Mohamed Ibrahim to use his great vision to find creases and holes.
Ibrahim, the Big Ten's reigning Running Back of the Year, was a workhorse in 2020 with 201 carries for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns in seven games.
Minnesota has its three top tight ends back, but Sanford's expected use of the position didn't come to fruition in 2020. The team is still high on 6'7" Brevyn Spann-Ford, but results have yet to back up the hype.
Previewing Minnesota's Defense for 2021
Minnesota struggled mightily to replace seven starters in 2020, giving up a combined 94 points and 1,156 total yards in losses to Michigan and Maryland to open the season. The Gophers improved as the season progressed, but the holes exposed at linebacker and safety remained throughout most of the season.
With their struggles, Minnesota brought in FCS-level transfer Jack Gibbens from Abilene Christian to help the linebacker corps, while Braelen Oliver comes back from a knee injury.
Gophers coaches rave about middle linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin's intelligence and makeup, but he needs to emerge as a leader who produces.
The Gophers will ride with Jordan Howden and Tyler Nubin again in the back of the secondary, and the program got a boost when cornerback Coney Durr didn't join Benjamin St-Juste in departing. Freshman Miles Fleming is a top contender to fill the other CB spot.
The headliner among the eight incoming transfers is Clemson defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney, who was a captain and played more than 1,000 snaps for the title-contending Tigers.
"He's got a mission," Fleck says of Pinckney. "He came in here and he's put his head down and worked. … I think that whole (D-Line) room went up when that happened."
With six DTs set to contribute, including NC State transfer Val Martin and four returnees, along with freak athlete and rush end Boye Mafe on the outside, Minnesota should be in good shape up front.
Previewing Minnesota's Specialists for 2021
For years, this has been the Gophers' Achilles heal. Their two overtime losses a year ago came with missed kicks — an extra point against Maryland and a field goal against Wisconsin. To rectify the issues, Minnesota brought in two kickers — Matthew Trickett from Kent State and Will Mobley from Temple. The Gophers also added punter Daniel Sparks from ULM to compete with Mark Crawford.
Minnesota has had a hard time finding a consistent threat in the return game. There will be a wide-open competition for that role in 2021.
The offense needs to make small-step improvements, the defense needs to make big strides and special teams must make leaps for Minnesota to return to contention in 2021. With experience at nearly every position and reinforcements in the form of transfers, Minnesota will be gunning for the top spot in the Big Ten West. "We are already creating that internal expectation and that internal pressure," Fleck says. "Because I really like this football team."
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(Mohamed Ibrahim photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletics)