"Row the boat" and "elite" are now staples in the Minnesota football vocabulary.
They are some of the buzzwords that new coach P.J. Fleck used at Western Michigan, a program he took to the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic last season, and they are concepts he brought with him to the Twin Cities. Of course, it's going to take a lot more than slogans and catch phrases to get the Golden Gophers up to speed, beginning with their first spring practice Tuesday.
Minnesota is coming off a nine-win season and a victory over Washington State in the National Funding Holiday Bowl. But there was also turmoil in the program, with mass player suspensions for an alleged sexual assault, a brief player-led bowl boycott and the firing of former head coach Tracy Claeys. Fleck's unending enthusiasm and positive attitude might be exactly what this program needs right now, but there are some personnel questions that must be answered.
That's why the Gophers will be one of the most fascinating teams to watch this spring.
Spring schedule: Minnesota will practice Tuesday and Thursday behind closed doors, then take a week off for spring break. The first two workouts will be focused on installing Fleck's schemes. The team will return to the field March 21, hold its spring game on April 15 at TCF Bank Stadium and have one last practice April 17.
What’s new: The entire coaching staff. Fleck didn't keep any Claeys holdovers. He brought Kirk Ciarrocca with him from Western Michigan as offensive coordinator and hired Robb Smith, who was the defensive coordinator at Arkansas the past three seasons, to run that side of the ball. Ed Warriner, who was Ohio State’s offensive coordinator the past two years, is now the Gophers' offensive line coach/run game coordinator.
Three things we want to see:
1. Who is next at QB?: It only seemed like Mitch Leidner had a lifetime scholarship. Leidner appeared at three straight Big Ten media days and started 41 games under center for the Gophers. His departure means there isn't much experience at quarterback on the roster. Senior Conor Rhoda did start the Maryland Terrapins game last year but has thrown for just 88 yards in his career. Redshirt sophomore Demry Croft and redshirt freshman Seth Green have much to prove. There's also a juco transfer in Neil McLaurin, who signed with the previous staff, and an early enrollee in Tanner Morgan, who flipped from Western Michigan to follow Fleck. It should be a wide-open competition.
2. Secondary concerns: Two starters from last season, safety Damarius Travis and cornerback Jalen Myrick, were at the NFL combine. Two other contributors, corner Ray Buford and safety Dior Johnson, left the program after being suspended. Getting Antoine Winfield Jr. back from suspension was a big boost to a position that has been one of the program's best in recent years. But there still isn't a ton of depth or experience here, and this should be a focus this spring.
3. How it all comes together: This one is more esoteric and probably difficult to quantify in spring. Still, there was definitely a rift between the players and the administration over the winter, and many were sad to see Claeys go. Fleck's personality might not fit everyone. The schemes are going to be different than what the veterans are used to, especially on offense. Can Fleck and his staff get total buy-in during this crucial development period? Will everyone be on the same page going forward? This could be a transition year for the Golden Gophers, and spring could tell us a lot about the team's direction.