Minneapolis – Following P.J. Fleck’s whirlwind takeover of the program at Minnesota and a forgettable first year under the fast-talking, fun-loving, full-of-energy head coach, the newness is finally out of the way for the Gophers.
Well, except for the quarterbacks.
Regardless of whether redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan or true freshman Zack Annexstad is chosen as the starter for 2018, the first snap of the season will also be the first of his career.
“I’m really excited about it, because I know them inside and out,” said Fleck, the former Western Michigan coach. “We recruited both of them. We know exactly what they’re about. We feel really good about where we’re at right now.”
There is nowhere for the Gophers to go but up behind Morgan and/or Annexstad. Only eight teams in the FBS finished with fewer passing yards per game than them in 2017, and five of those programs have run-heavy option schemes.
“They’re already both leaders on our team,” defensive end Carter Coughlin said. “They work as hard if not harder than anybody else on the team, and they push each other too, so regardless of who comes out on top I think our team’s going to be in really good hands.”
The Gophers have been widely picked to again finish near the bottom of the Big Ten West Division, in no small part because of their quarterback situation. They’ll at least have the benefit of increased familiarity with the routines and systems of playing for Fleck and his staff.
“I think we are going to shock some people,” Coughlin said, “wake some people up.”
For the sixth straight season, the Gophers will open at home on a Thursday night. They play New Mexico State on Aug. 30.
The Gophers have far more returning experience on their offensive line than in Fleck’s debut, and 6-foot-7 senior Donnell Greene will again anchor the group at left tackle. He has 19 starts in two years after starting his career in junior college.
“When he first got here he was a very good football player, but I think his work ethic has grown big time,” said center Jared Weyler, who missed half of the games in 2017 due to a foot injury. “So he’s bringing a lot more energy in the weight room, and he’s really fun to be around.”
After a breakout season in 2016 when he led the Gophers with 7.5 sacks, won the team’s Gary Tinsley Award for underdog spirit and was named the Defensive Most Valuable Player in the Holiday Bowl, Blake Cashman had a quieter junior year.
Now that Jon Celestin, who’s currently in camp with the Atlanta Falcons, has departed, there’s an opportunity for the former walk-on to crack the starting lineup in the base defense at linebacker next to juniors and fellow Minnesotans Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin. The 6-foot-2 Cashman, who has long been an ace on special teams, has increased his weight to 235 pounds and moved past a shoulder injury that hampered him during the spring.
The Gophers have welcomed sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr. back after a nagging hamstring injury limited him to four games and led to a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA to preserve a year of eligibility. One of the best tacklers on the team was badly missed in an inexperienced secondary, after Winfield started most of the 2016 season.
“When the running back would bounce outside the box,” Cashman said, “he was the guy who could make those tackles. So I’m excited to see what he can do.”
All three of Minnesota’s nonconference games are at home. None of them feature a Power Five conference opponent. That doesn’t mean this inexperienced Gophers team can bank on three guaranteed wins to get them going for Big Ten play, though.
New Mexico State is coming off the program’s first bowl game win in 57 years and is the program that spoiled the home opener for Minnesota in head coach Jerry Kill’s first season by beating the Gophers 28-21 on Sept. 10, 2011. Fresno State, which visits TCF Bank Stadium on Sept. 8, has returned several standouts from a 10-4 finish in head coach Jeff Tedford’s first year.
With so many underclassmen certain to comprise the starting lineup and serve as top subs on offense, topping last season’s 5-7 mark and becoming bowl eligible will be tough. Still, the first Big Ten game is at reeling Maryland, one of four league foes for Minnesota this year that failed to make a bowl game. The four Big Ten home opponents are Iowa, Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern, had a combined 17-19 conference record in 2017.