Gophers offensive lineman Jared Weyler returns this week from a foot injury, but the Gophers injured list is still long and full of starters.
To make up for these injuries, head coach P.J. Fleck has had to pull redshirts. Two freshman cornerbacks now wearing redshirts could lose them in the Michigan State game this Saturday. Freshman Rey Estes is listed second-string cornerback behind junior Antonio Shenault, and freshman Justus Harris is listed behind sophomore Coney Durr — who is recovering from a torn ACL.
“[Harris] is a guy that ever since he stepped foot on campus, he was a guy that kind of got in the fold late here in recruiting, but he’s an explosive guy," said defensive coordinator Robb Smith. "[He] can do some things for us on the slot and in the perimeter, and [I’m] excited to see him in action this weekend.”
If the two freshman corners play, they will give up their fifth year of eligibility.
On offense, Blaise Andries is listed as the backup for each offensive tackle in the Michigan State game. Andries and fellow class of 2021 freshman wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell have been listed as backups since the first game against Buffalo.
“We don’t tell you about stepping up, we tell you about stepping in here,” said offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. “Everybody prepares as if they’re going to play the whole game.”
The three freshmen who have played are defensive lineman Nate Umlor, safety Ken Handy-Holly and wide receiver Demetrius Douglas, who is out for the season with a foot injury.
“There’s a balancing act of how much is too much,” Fleck said. “There’s freshmen that are ready to play, that want to play, that need to play… And then you have this group over here that’s not ready to play but hell, they have to play — that’s not the position you want them to be in.”
After the Purdue game, Fleck said he would not pull any more redshirts. He drew back on that promise this week by making it possible for Harris to lose his in the Michigan State game, where he is listed as a backup corner.
Fleck said after the Purdue loss he would avoid pulling redshirts by moving wide receivers to defensive backs.
He said yesterday he won’t speak about position changes yet, but that it’s “the last resort.”
“We don’t want to get there,” Fleck said. “I don’t want to do it, and I don’t think we’ll have to do it, but if we have to then that will be the last resort.”
Next year’s Gophers recruiting class has 23 recruits and it is ranked at 35th in the nation (eighth in the Big Ten) by 247 Sports — three spots down from Wisconsin.
“We’re tied for the most commitments in the Big Ten,” Fleck said. “People want to be here, they want to be here for the opportunities, but that doesn’t help for the next seven weeks. What helps for the seven weeks is getting the guys ready to play football games.”
Fifty out of 111 Gophers players are freshmen or redshirt freshmen, and only 14 players on the team have started more than 10 Gophers games in their careers.
“All these young guys that are playing, that’s just an excuse for people to make,” said quarterback Conor Rhoda. “We’re going to get whoever’s going to play that week, we’re going to do everything we can to make sure they’re playing at an elite level.”