It was easy enough to figure P.J. Fleck could leverage his brilliant run at Western Michigan into a job in a power conference, but I don’t think many projected him to end up at Minnesota. But in December, then-Gophers coach Tracy Claeys publicly supported a threatened player boycott of the team’s bowl game, going against his bosses in the school’s administration. His job was open a few weeks later.
As it happens, hiring Fleck to replace Claeys makes a great deal of sense for the Gophers. It’s somewhat surprising that Fleck wasn’t able to land at a more traditionally well-known program, given the historic success he had at WMU. The Broncos went undefeated through the MAC title game last year and made the Cotton Bowl, three years after Fleck’s first WMU team finished 1-11.
Fleck’s track record of success should spur some optimism that he can make the Gophers more competitive in the Big Ten West. Here’s how that could look.
First, Fleck needs to recruit talent to the tundra.
This is the biggest issue facing every Minnesota coach, and the challenge was reflected in Claeys’s parting words after his firing:
"I won't be up here freezing my ass off, so y'all enjoy the winter." MN Gophers FB coach Tracy Claeys to our camera after being fired.— Bill Lunn (@BillLunnKSTP) January 4, 2017
Minnesota gets cold, and every player sold on going to Minnesota has to be sold on walking to class in January and February. That’s no doubt a major reason why Gophers tend to come from the Northern lands.
But Minnesota isn’t a state with a particularly big population, and over the last few years, the Gophers haven’t been able to stock their team with locals or with blue-chip talent, as rated on the 247Sports Composite.
In most years, Minnesota has zero or one in-state four- or five-star recruits. And while the state doesn’t provide a foundation for an elite Big Ten team on its own, it’s been demonstrated that trying to bring in an ace recruiter to stock the team with Floridians is a recipe for disaster. Tim Brewster’s attempts to do that left the state open to North Dakota State and created arguably college football’s greatest dynasty.
Recruiting at Minnesota has to include local kids, both because there is some talent in the region and because that’s the talent most willing to don the Gopher uniform. Balance is crucial; you can’t have only Minnesotans, but you need some.
Over the last six years, the Gophers have signed about half of the higher-rated players from the state of Minnesota, but the vast majority of those have been three-stars, not four- or five-star talents. Clearly, there’s a little room for improvement there, but the lack of blue-chip talent means expanding the recruiting base will be essential.
This should make Fleck a good fit at Minnesota. When I wrote about the team last year, of 22 WMU starters, 10 were from Michigan, 10 from nearby Big Ten states, and just two were from traditional talent hotbeds. Fleck has a knack for recruiting within a close, but not merely statewide, geographic footprint.
Thanks to preexisting connections in the region, there’s a realistic chance that Fleck can recruit at a high level across the Midwest. Initially, he made reference to a “six- or seven- hour” radius around the Twin Cities. But we’ve already seen him venture beyond that to get into the fertile grounds of Ohio, and also to take shots at some Texas and Florida kids.
What’s more, the success of North Dakota State suggests that there may be more untapped upside in the state’s lower-ranked talents than you might guess. There are currently eight Bison in the NFL, and six of them came out of Minnesota. Yet only one of those players was even given a rating by 247Sports.
As a coach who was recruiting some pretty good lower-ranked players to the MAC, Fleck might be better than most at identifying under-recruited, in-state talent.
Get ready for the spread option, on ice.
The Gophers play in TCF Bank Stadium, a 50,000-plus-seat outdoor stadium with beautiful aesthetics but no roof to shield the players from the Minnesotan elements. They have indoor facilities to allow them to practice in a controlled environment during the winter months, but team strategy for winning games in November and December has to bear in mind the possibility of playing in wind, ice, or snow.
For the last few years, Minnesota’s offensive strategy has been to field big, burly players and either pound the ball on the ground with a power run game, or throw it out wide to tight ends like Maxx Williams.
Fleck’s offense is different in a variety of ways. His WMU teams weren’t inclined to try to knock defenders out of the way with big blockers. Instead, they would rely on a quick pass to a WR to punish defenders for crashing into the box to stop the run.
This kind of run/pass-option-based spread relies on a few key components.
Fleck will need to be able to find pieces for it at Minnesota to successfully elevate the Gophers’ level of offensive play beyond what it’s been over the last few years.
The first is a sound OL that can block inside and outside zone plays against honest numbers from the defense. If the defense doesn’t feel the need to drop an extra player into the box to stop a running play, there won't be easy opportunities to flip the ball out wide to an athlete like Western Michigan star Corey Davis. Minnesota should be in good shape here and already has landed some brutes for its line.
Next are running backs who can run the ball behind that OL well enough to force the defense to drop an extra defender down. Minnesota returns a pair of good backs in Shannon Brooks (650 yards in 2016) and Rodney Smith (1158 yards).
The two areas where Fleck will need to do some work are finding an explosive athlete who can take advantage of the space that the above players can create via the threat of the run game, and a QB who can read the defense and get the aforementioned athlete the ball.
Beyond that, Wisconsin choked the life out of the Western Michigan offense by playing tight man coverage over the Broncos’ WRs while still dropping help down to control the inside run game.
To handle tactics like this, a spread team like the Broncos needs to have a QB/pass-catcher pairing that can beat man coverage. That could include a big tight end like Williams, or a speedy wide receiver who’s too athletic to mirror on quick routes. Either way, Fleck needs to get those players in place and develop them.
All of that can be challenging enough.
But the Gophers also need to find guys who can do this in freezing temperatures and inclement weather.
In the short term, if Fleck can just find some athletes dangerous enough to force the defense to consider man coverage as a solution, that will be a step in the right direction. If Fleck can find guys of that description at Western Michigan, there’s a good chance that he can do so at Minnesota.