The Gophers have dropped their first two Big Ten games of the season and depth issues are becoming more clear after non-conference play. Injuries at already thin positon groups have only made these blemishes even more apparent.
Despite all of the issues surrounding personnel, the Gophers still managed to compete in their first two matchups. Football games can be won or lost based upon the outcome of three or four key plays. Red zone turnovers were critical factors in both of the games.
In those moments, it’s been clear to see the growing pains associated with a young roster and thin depth.
Entering the season, many of the keys to success revolved around overcoming depth concerns and inexperience at various positions. These were especially clear at quarterback, defensive back, and wide receiver. With 45 percent of the roster consisting of freshman or redshirt freshman, along with 69 percent underclassmen, the Gophers couldn’t afford injuries. Minnesota has only 14 players who have started ten or more games in their career. However, all of the positions listed above were hit by injuries and suspensions.
“It is one thing to play a freshman that can play versus playing a freshman that has to play,” head coach P.J. Fleck said Tuesday.
The team will need to pull a few redshirts to compensate for their depth issues. However, Fleck has repeatedly said he won’t jeopardize the future by playing too many true freshmen. In the secondary, safety Antoine Winfield Jr. suffered a hamstring injury, safety Duke McGhee was suspended, and cornerback Kiondre Thomas will miss this week’s game. At wide receiver, the team anticipated contributions from true freshman Demetrius Douglas and Chris Autman-Bell, but both were lost to season-ending injuries. Wide receiver Phillip Howard will also miss this week’s game against Michigan State.
Even more importantly, the quarterback position lacks a pure system fit. Conor Rhoda won the job by default as Demry Croft was suspended for personal reasons. Rhoda doesn’t provide much upside as a dual-threat option, which puts a constraint on the run-pass option looks the coaches would like to run. Essentially, the coaching staff is trying to run their offensive system with a quarterback that doesn’t fully maximize its potential. Rhoda’s lack of dual-threat ability has led to stacked fronts. The coaches have been forced to adapt by running more jet sweep and motion concepts to get their running backs to the edge. The inexperience at quarterback was known when the season began, but it has been illustrated in games against Big Ten teams.
The good news is future recruiting has already been targeting these areas. Three-star cornerbacks Shamaur McDowell, Tyrik Henderson, Terrell Smith, and Benny Sapp III are all committed to the 2018 class. P.J. Fleck and his staff are adding athletic, playmaking style cornerbacks, which is a shift from the big, physical players the past staff recruited. It will allow them to increase their overall team speed, while playing more aggressive on the outside.
At wide receiver, the team will add an underrated stable of pass catchers, including Jornell Manns, Rashod Bateman and Erik Gibson. Manns chose the Gophers over Penn State and Wisconsin and has been making noise in the state of Ohio this season. Gibson and Bateman are also underrated prospects that are gaining more steam in recruiting circles. The team will have more weapons that can create plays, especially when Demetrius Douglas and Chris Autman-Bell return next season.
In 2018, the staff will have the chance to use their own quarterback. Ohio recruit Brennan Armstrong is a system fit the coaches picked to run their offense. Armstrong can accurately complete all of the short-to-intermediate passes required in this system. More importantly, he can keep defenses honest with his legs. He possesses enough dual-threat ability to maximize the run-pass option system.
It is clear the coaching staff was well aware of these potential issues as they entered the season. They started to make adjustments with their future recruiting strategies to build their own depth.
Anyone who thought Fleck would install his new system and experience limited growing pains, wasn’t being realistic. There were thin spots throughout this roster and injuries cast a larger cloud on them. It’s forced young players to see more action in live games before they are ready to do so. The team will eventually benefit from these inexperienced players receiving snaps early in their career. However, the transformation won’t happen overnight.
It won’t get any easier with games at Iowa, Northwestern, and Michigan on the horizon. The Gophers will also see ranked foes Michigan State and Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium. There will be growing pains this year as the Gophers play against quality Big Ten teams. However, as the younger players gain more experience, it will be beneficial for long-term success. More importantly, P.J. Fleck and his coaching staff will have the opportunity to inject a potential top-25 recruiting class for 2018.
It’s going to take time and patience as P.J. Fleck creates depth and hits the recruiting trail to find his type of players. Until then, everyone will need to watch this team grow in subtle ways as the 2017 season progresses.