Freshman offensive lineman Daniel Faalele will start his first career game this Saturday at Ohio State. The decision was announced Tuesday afternoon as the latest depth chart showed the 6'9" 400-pound Faalele had taken redshirt sophomore Sam Schlueter's starting right tackle spot.
The change comes after Schlueter struggled against Iowa, giving up three sacks in the first half. Faalele replaced Schlueter in the second half, but after the game head coach P.J. Fleck was non-committal on if Faalele had won the starting job moving forward.
"I made the switch at right tackle based on getting Daniel Faalele reps, period," said Fleck.
Until the Iowa game, it was still undecided whether or not Faalele would be redshirted and given another year of eligibility. But after the game, Fleck arrived at a decision.
"I have to make a decision one way or another now, he's in two games. I think we just ride with him," he said.
After a few days of thinking, Fleck and the Gophers decided not only to continue to play him, but that the time was right to shift him into the starting line. However, Fleck remained adamant that this was not the last time Schlueter would block for the Gophers.
Faalele, a 4-star recruit coming out of Melbourne, Australia, was highly sought after during his recruitment. He received offers from powerhouse programs such as Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida. The Gophers ultimately won out as Faalele committed to Minnesota.
All the teams who recruited him seemed to be enamored with the athletic ability and strength that Faalele possessed at his size.
"He might be the strongest person on our team, naturally. He's only going to get stronger, which is scary," Fleck said.
The Gophers will need his strength and athletic ability to be on full display when they take on No. 3 Ohio State on Saturday. The Buckeyes are second in the country with 22 sacks this season.
"They have a ton of awesome athletes out there, they've got a lot of different combos, a lot of different movements," said redshirt sophomore and fellow offensive lineman Conner Olson. "Iowa was a big power rush bull team, that was something we had to handle, Daniel came in too that helped out a lot with that ... Ohio State is similar, they are able to bull [rush] pretty well as well."
After giving up five sacks to Iowa and four to Maryland, the Gophers need a better performance if they are going to pull off the upset.
"The speed and power of these guys is different than what they see every day," said offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. "I thought Daniel did really well for a true freshman and his strength was able to help negate some of the strength Iowa's defensive ends had and helped stabilize us a little bit."
When asked about Faalele's progression, Olson noted how quickly Faalele has been able to adapt and become comfortable.
"I felt [comfortable] about half way through Big Ten play, so I was about six games in," Olson said. "I'll tell you right now Daniel is developing a lot faster than me, and looks a lot better than I did after my first game."
Fleck said Faalele is ready to become a starter and produce at the high level the team needs.
"Daniel's a guy that can handle a lot. I think back in March, April I probably wouldn't have said he was ready yet ... I feel at this point he can play," Fleck said. "I thought he did pretty well when he was in there, he's got to get a lot better but he's fully committed to making himself a really good football player."