Minnesota's football team and the rest of the Big Ten west division were in the spotlight Monday as day one of the annual Big Ten Media days in kicked off in Chicago over one month before the start to the season.
The two-day convention began the chatter around the Big Ten, but for the Gophers, the focus was on the youth of the team.
“We have a very youthful, very young, very inexperienced football team which does not necessarily mean we can’t win,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “We have a very talented football team, just incredibly young.”
This year the Gophers are so young that only 23 of the 85 scholarships awarded were to upperclassmen, according to Fleck.
Junior linebacker Carter Coughlin said youth is not an issue.
“The young guys are really, really talented. I think some of them are going to just shock everyone,” Coughlin said.
To combat the youth and inexperience of the team, the coaching staff introduced a motto of maturity.
“Our whole model for this year is 'race to maturity' and [we define maturity] as when doing what you have to do becomes doing what you want to do,” Fleck said.
The same motto was used during Fleck's second season at Western Michigan University, a team that had 18 freshman starters.
The Gophers are going to rely on the youth to fully embrace the maturity model and to produce on the field, especially on the offensive side of the ball.
“We have two quarterbacks who have never played,” Fleck said.
Going into training camp next week, the Gophers have a quarterback battle between two freshmen, Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad, who have never taken a snap at the Division I level. Even so, Fleck said he has confidence in the duo and is thrilled to see what happens.
“I’m really excited to see, out of the two guys, who can win the team,” Fleck said.
Morgan was on the roster last season as a redshirt while Annexstad is coming into the program as a true freshman of the 2018 recruiting class.
Regarding the rest of the offense, junior wide receiver Tyler Johnson could be the only non-freshman starter at the receiver position.
“Everyone else [Johnson] is going to play with is going to be a redshirt freshman or a true freshman,” Fleck said.
This is not Fleck's first time coaching a young team while at a new program. He said there are parallels between now and his second season at Western Michigan.
“The one common denominator [with the two teams] is we’re very young,” Fleck said.
That Western Michigan team started 2-3 but finished the season 8-5 after winning six conference games in a row.
“It’s like the light went on. Sooner or later the light will go on for this young team,” Fleck said. “I don’t know when that’ll happen, but it’ll depend on our older guys.”
One of those tenure players is redshirt senior Rodney Smith, who has embraced the leadership role and said the process has already started.
“We’ve been showing [the freshmen] the ropes. Whether if its athletically, teaching them about film, academically or just helping them out,” Smith said.
The senior tailback rushed for 977 yards with three touchdowns in 2017 with the Gophers. After the loss of Shannon Brooks in the spring, Smith is looking for one of the younger backs to step up into Brooks' place.
“I expect the guys behind me to step up and take on Shannon’s part,” Smith said. "It doesn't matter if it's on game day or at practice; someone's going to step up."
Brooks could potentially return and play in the last four games of the season if his recovery goes according to plan. With the new redshirt rule, players are allowed to play in four games before coaches must decide to redshirt them or not.
Smith said he wants to see improvement in the offense this year, specifically in its ability to make explosive plays.
On defense, junior linebacker Thomas Barber said that it’s the veterans' jobs to prepare the young players.
“Being a leader on and off the field and showing them how to go about,” Barber said. “It’s how we’re going to lead the football team, [Coughlin] and [Smith] are involved too.”
Barber led the Big Ten in solo tackles with 76 and was third in the Big Ten in total tackles bringing down 115 opposing players.
In its second year under Fleck, Smith said the team is ready to improve.
“We know what to expect this year. Last year was all about learning,” Smith said. “This year it’s about mastering it and implementing it throughout the team.”