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Why we should have patience with P.J. Fleck in Year 2

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His second Minnesota squad still has glaring holes, but should be in lots of close games.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Minnesota
P.J. Fleck
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

You have to say this for Fleck: he’s not one for short-term solutions. Even if it means losses in the interim, and even if it means youth movements or trial and error, he’s going to take his time figuring out solutions.

At his last job, short-term pain meant long-term domination. He won just three of his first 17 games at Western Michigan, then went 27-8. His recruiting was too strong for the rest of the MAC, and the freshmen who were overmatched in 2013 began 2016 13-0.

Through one year at Minnesota, then, you could say that things are going according to plan. Fleck, the most energetic, boat-rowingest coach in the conference, went with youth in certain units — freshmen and sophomores accounted for the top four WR targets, 20 of 60 offensive line starts, and three of the top four linebackers, and three freshmen saw rotation in the defensive backfield. And his Gophers fared quite a bit better than his Broncos did in 2013.

When battling against teams with similar levels of talent/experience, the Gophers were fine. They went 3-1 against teams ranked 101st or worse in S&P+ and 2-3 against teams ranked between 41st and 100th. Unfortunately, the Big Ten has top-40 teams in it, too, and an 0-3 record against those squads meant a failure to reach bowl eligibility.

  • Minnesota vs. S&P+ No. 101+ (3-1): Avg. score: UM 38, Opp 21 | Avg. yards per play: UM 6.2, Opp 5.0 (plus-1.2)
  • Minnesota vs. No. 41-100 (2-3): Avg. score: Opp 19, UM 16 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.1, UM 4.5 (minus-0.6)
  • Minnesota vs. S&P+ top 40 (0-3): Avg. score: Opp 31, UM 12 | Avg. yards per play: Opp 7.0, UM 3.6 (minus-3.4)

The defense held 10 of 12 opponents to 5.6 yards per play or fewer, but the offense, which finished a ghastly 120th in Off. S&P+, was only fine when punching down. And now Minnesota has no QB experience whatsoever — part-time starter Conor Rhoda was a senior, and sophomore Demry Croft transferred to Tennessee State.

Neither Rhoda nor Croft lit the world afire, but you do still need a quarterback, and Minnesota has been heading toward Week 1 with exactly one scholarship signal caller: redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan. If neither he nor incoming freshman Zack Annexstad (a preferred walk-on ... for now) are ready for Big Ten play, it’s going to be impossible for the Gophers to make up much ground. [A JUCO QB who might have started, Vic Viramontes, transferred back to JUCO earlier in the offseason.]

It’s just as well, though, as there are still plenty of other questions to answer. The offensive skill corps showed efficiency potential and almost no big-play prowess, and both the defensive line and secondary have been thinned out a decent amount. Minnesota won’t have many difference-making seniors.

We know Fleck will remain patient, though. It’s what he does. The long-term question is what happens when he doesn’t generate a talent advantage. Per the 247Sports Composite, he did sign a top-40 class in 2018, Minnesota’s first since 2009. But even in the Big Ten West, the weaker side of the conference, top-40 classes are probably only going to rank somewhere around Iowa and behind Nebraska and Wisconsin.

What’s Fleck’s ceiling, then? We probably won’t start figuring that out for another couple of years.

Offense

2017 Minnesota offensive radar

It wasn’t hard to figure out why Fleck brought Kirk Ciarrocca with him from WMU. After a dreadful first-year youth movement, his Bronco offense improved to 42nd in Off. S&P+ in 2014, then 22nd and 25th after that.

Ciarrocca’s 2016 offense was a masterpiece of Big Ten-like balance. WMU was run-heavy (24th in run rate on standard downs) and forced opponents to gang tackle (94th in solo tackle percentage) but boasted extreme passing efficiency. WMU quarterback Zach Terrell completed 70 percent of his passes that year, and all-world receiver Corey Davis combined a 70 percent catch rate with 15.5 yards per reception.

Oh, to have had a Corey Davis on 2017 Minnesota.

2017 Minnesota offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Minnesota’s offense was pretty efficient. The Gophers were 40th in rushing success rate, and their line mostly did its job, ranking 33rd in power success rate and 39th in stuff rate.

As was the case at WMU, Ciarrocca was run-heavy in his play-calling, but you still have to prove capable of throwing the football. That was, to put it politely, an adventure.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Michigan
Tyler Johnson
Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Tyler Johnson did his part. The junior-to-be caught 35 passes for 677 yards and seven scores, and his 10 yards per target rivaled that of Davis (10.9 in 2016). But he was an all-or-nothing threat (52 percent catch rate, 47 percent success rate), and he got nearly no help from the rest of his receiving corps.

  • The No. 2 WR, freshman Phillip Howard, caught just 11 of 21 passes for 132 yards. He had nine catches in three games and just two in the other nine.
  • Tight ends Brandon Lingen and Nate Wozniak caught 16 of 29 for 188 yards, then graduated.
  • Freshman Demetrius Douglas caught 11 of 15 but gained just 83 yards with a 27 percent success rate and missed the final nine games of the year with injury. (He was granted a medical redshirt.)
  • Every other wideout caught eight of 32 passes, then either graduated or transferred.

Howard and Douglas are back, and running back Rodney Smith caught 17 of 19 passes (albeit for only 107 yards). But there’s no guarantee that the depth of options after Johnson will improve even slightly. And that’s before we get to the “catching passes from a freshman or walk-on” part.

That’s a shame because the running game could be pretty good, if backs aren’t running into eight-man boxes.

Minnesota must replace Croft, who was as good at running as he was bad at passing, and Smith’s departed backups — Kobe McCrary (graduation) and Shannon Brooks (injury and impending redshirt) — were both more efficient than Smith. Still, Smith improved (3.7 yards per carry over the first six games, 4.9 over the next six), and his line should be pretty good.

Senior tackle Donnell Greene was honorable-mention all-conference last year, and sophomores Conner Olson and Sam Schlueter combined for 18 starts. Only three members of last year’s two-deep have departed, and if any of the meaty youngsters Fleck has signed — high-three-star redshirt freshman Blaise Andries (6’5, 313), four-star true freshmen Curtis Dunlap Jr. (6’5, 370) or Daniel Faalele (6’9, 400!!) — can step in, this will be a lovely, deep line.

Smith and the best of a set of young backs (redshirt freshmen Mohamed Ibrahim and Dominik London, true freshmen Nolan Edmonds and Bryce Williams) should carve out chunks of yards between the tackles, creating third-and-manageables for the young QBs. But they’re still going to need to make some throws.

Morgan and Annexstad showed some competence in the spring. Morgan completed 18 of 28 passes for 272 yards in the spring game, twice finding Johnson for scores. Mostly piloting the second string, Annexstad went 11-for-18 for 186 yards and a touchdown pass to Smith.

Morgan is generously listed at 6’2 (and bears a strange resemblance to Wayne Rooney) and probably would have earned a few other power-conference offers if he’d been about two inches taller. At first glance, he appears to be a high-floor, low-ceiling type of prospect, but hey, maybe that’s a good thing: Minnesota’s offensive floor was awfully low last year.

Defense

2017 Minnesota defensive radar

The first year of Fleck’s reunification with defensive coordinator Robb Smith — with whom he coached under Greg Schiano at Rutgers in 2010-11 — went reasonably well. Minnesota fell from 23rd to 46th in Def. S&P+ but prevented big plays and tended to respond well when it was getting any sort of offensive support. The Gophers were a sturdy 31st defensively after 10 games but cratered against Northwestern and Wisconsin as the offense ran out of answers. (Combined score of those two games: 70-0.)

Offensive support or no, the front seven was a bit disappointing. The Gophers fell from 19th to 102nd in Rushing S&P+ despite decent continuity from 2016 and minimal injuries.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Northwestern
Thomas Barber
Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Depth up front could be an issue, with three of last year’s top five linemen gone, but you could say that the right pieces are back — in linebackers Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin, rush end Carter Coughlin and end Winston DeLattiboudere, the front’s top four havoc defenders (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles) return.

Barber and Coughlin are the stars. They combined for 22 TFLs, four passes defensed (all from Barber), and four forced fumbles. Linebackers were the primary havoc source, and there’s continuity there.

Things can fall apart pretty quickly if you’ve got a void at tackle, though, and four of last year’s top five are gone. Senior Gary Moore is a building block, but some combination of Alabama transfer O.J. Smith, redshirt freshmen Malcolm Robinson and Noah Hickcox, and maybe incoming high-three-star freshman Elijah Teague will need to contribute.

NCAA Football: Michigan State at Minnesota
Jacob Huff
Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The secondary was a complete injury wreck — nine DBs averaged at least one tackle per game (the sign of a regular), but only one (safety Jacob Huff) played in all 12 games, and three missed at least eight.

Still, Smith’s safeties did their part, and the return of Huff and sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr. should ensure a pair of solid starters. It’s the same at cornerback, with senior Antonio Shenault and sophomore Kiondre Thomas and Justus Harris returning but a couple of other pieces gone.

Shenault combined 3.5 TFLs with four passes defensed. The secondary was passive overall, allowing a 63 percent completion rate but only 10 yards per completion, but in Shenault and Winfield (who was on pace to easily lead the secondary in havoc plays before injury), the most aggressive pieces return.

Stability should mean sturdy secondary play, but with four of last year’s top nine gone, any injuries could mean a youth movement.

Special Teams

Minnesota went 1-3 in one-possession finishes last year, and in all three losses the Gophers lost the field position battle — in a 31-24 loss to Maryland, they lost said battle by 7.1 yards per possession.

Offensive inefficiency didn’t help, but special teams hurt too. Minnesota ranked 106th in punt efficiency, 115th in kickoff efficiency, and 126th in punt return efficiency. Despite decent kicking from Emmit Carpenter (9-for-11 on FGs under 40 yards, 5-for-9 over 40), Minnesota ranked just 110th in Special Teams S&P+.

Carpenter’s back, as are all the primary return men — and it bears mentioning that Rodney Smith averaged 25.9 yards per kick return with a score — but to put it kindly, Minnesota’s going to be punting a lot again this year, and whoever replaces Ryan Santoso will need to top his output.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug New Mexico State 100 11.0 74%
8-Sep Fresno State 44 -1.6 46%
15-Sep Miami (Ohio) 82 5.3 62%
29-Sep at Maryland 80 0.0 50%
6-Oct Iowa 36 -3.9 41%
13-Oct at Ohio State 1 -28.7 5%
20-Oct at Nebraska 60 -3.7 42%
26-Oct Indiana 58 1.1 53%
3-Nov at Illinois 99 5.9 63%
10-Nov Purdue 54 0.1 50%
17-Nov Northwestern 38 -3.2 43%
24-Nov at Wisconsin 12 -19.5 13%
Projected S&P+ Rk 67
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 102 / 31
Projected wins 5.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 3.5 (54)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 47 / 48
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / 1.0
2017 TO Luck/Game -0.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 68% (69%, 66%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 5.2 (-0.2)

All five of Minnesota’s 2017 wins came against teams that ranked 68th or worse in S&P+. But after playing six such teams last fall, the Gophers are looking at a schedule that features only four of them. So if they’re to break through as WMU did, they’ll have to beat teams with a bit more of a pulse. While starting a freshman quarterback.

Because of the home-road splits, there are quite a few potentially winnable games. S&P+ projects UM 67th overall and projects a whopping nine games to finish within a touchdown. With a young QB and shaky special teams, the Gophers will probably lose more of those games than they win, but they’ll have a chance to make something of win opportunities.

I’m really curious what Minnesota can do as Fleck gets more of his pieces. The Big Ten West is getting its act together — everyone but Illinois can feel optimistic in the present or near future tenses — and Minnesota should grow more competitive, too. Either way, I’m not expecting anything massive from the Gophers for another year or two.

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