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P.J. Fleck, Minnesota Will Offer A Stiff Test For The Big Ten

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NCAA Football: Holiday Bowl-Minnesota vs Washington State Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Nick: Andrew! How is life, brother?

Andrew: There's a void in my life; 102 days until kick-off. Not to sound like Hank Williams Jr, but are you ready for some football?

Nick: I was ready in January. Then again, writing about sports is a little easier than playing it. Or so I’ve been told by the players, anyway.

Still, this does give us a chance to look around the conference and talk some shop, which leads us to this recurring look at other teams in the Big Ten. I wanted to start with Minnesota, because they’re a dark horse in the West and, frankly, a fascinating team with P.J. Fleck at the helm.

What are the two or three biggest storylines with Minnesota, you think? The impact of P.J. Fleck, obviously, has to be at the top.

Andrew: The impact of Fleck is rightly first and foremost, but a few other things have stood out. The plethora of talent on campus is as good as it has been in over a decade and I am interested to see how they utilize everything at their disposal. The Gophers return 14 starters (8 on offense) including running back Rodney Smith who I am higher on than most. Another factor with the talent is Fleck who has brought in a load of recruits with him. Some of these recruits may be less touted than others, but Fleck has an eye for talent (Corey Davis, Zach Terrell) and subsequent development.

X-factor offensively is who the starting quarterback will be come September.

Nick: Yeah, I’m interested to see what happens with Demry Croft, who had a breakout spring and might be leading the quarterback battle over redshirt senior Conor Rhoda.

From what I saw in the spring game (and Michigan fans know that should be taken with a grain of salt), I like Croft a lot as a guy who has all the tools to operate their offense really well. He’s athletic enough to run the ball, really good at handing off to backs or sweeps and disguising where the ball is actually going, and he has a cannon of an arm and the accuracy and timing to succeed with both short- and long-range stuff. Being 6’5”, 200 doesn’t hurt, either.

Minnesota’s offense reminds me a lot of Penn State’s offense, and they’ll try to make things easy on their skill players. But they also have a mammoth offensive line and a lot of depth all over the place.

Andrew: You’re not kidding about that offensive line. The strength of it being left tackle Donnell Greene. At 6’7, 345 pounds, with great movement and hand work, the bear from The Revenant wouldn’t stand a chance moving this man.

Minnesota v Nebraska
Minnesota has a good eight-deep of offensive linemen, and four guys who might get All-Big Ten honors - LT Donnell Greene, C Conner Olson, RG Vincent Calhoun, and RT Garrison Wright.
Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The defensive line concerns me. They have moved several linebacker types to play outside defensive ends because of depth concerns and that is great for a pass rush, but how is that going to hold up against strong running teams? Does the old adage hold true for Minnesota that the best way to beat a power running team is to run the ball against them?

Nick: Yeah, I do think that running the ball will be the best bet. But this is something that’s happening all over - emphasizing speed and hybrid linebacker/safety types (of which Minnesota has a good one, Jacob Huff) to play the run with speed and play the pass with even more speed.

I do think they’ll be vulnerable to big runs, but that’s as much because of Steven Richardson on the inside (who loves to slant and penetrate but can hurt the integrity of the defense while doing so) as anything else. They have a decent linebacking corps, no superstars, but enough depth and toughness to get the job done. Some solid defensive linemen, too - nothing amazing except for maybe their two defensive end starters, Carter Coughlin (a breakout candidate at WDE, guy reminds me of Chase Winovich) and Winston DeLattiboudere, who’s really lanky but is good at somehow getting all of his limbs around an offensive tackle to sack the quarterback.

What do you think of the pass defense for Minnesota? They’re not exactly going to be challenged by any elite pass offenses until (hopefully) Michigan in November, so they’re going to have time to get settled in, at least.

Andrew: The secondary will be physical and that begins and ends with senior safety Duke McGhee. McGhee deserves hyperbole similar to the movie Major League: “This guy leveled his own brother in a family game of touch football.” He is physical, athletic, and will play on Sunday’s.

Poll

Do you think Fleck will be successful at Minnesota?

This poll is closed

  • 37%
    Yes, very.
    (148 votes)
  • 54%
    Yes, reasonably.
    (218 votes)
  • 8%
    Not really, no.
    (34 votes)
400 votes total Vote Now

Next to him, you have Antoine Winfield who is an average player, nothing great, but the real question emerges with the corners. Junior Antonio Shenault and freshman Kiondre Thomas seem poised to start the season against Buffalo and a favorable starting schedule will allow them both to become comfortable before they are hopefully tested by Michigan.

Michigan gets them the first weekend in November and then Minnesota travels again two weeks later to Northwestern where they will face their biggest offensive test of the season in Justin Jackson and Clayton Thorson. But with that schedule, how many wins do you think Minny ‘rows’ to in P.J. Fleck’s first season?

Nick: Bullish on Northwestern, I see! I’ll say that Minnesota ends up in the thick of the Big Ten West race and finishes with around 10 wins. This was almost certainly the quietest 9-win team from a year ago, and they’ll be taking steps forward, not back.

Andrew: I’m in the same boat as you as long as Fleck is rowing it. This team should roll to 8-0 and come into the Michigan game as the nation’s sweetheart. However, I think they pull a 2016 Michigan and tumble down the stretch dropping 2-3 of their last 4 games.

Nick: Yeah, the tough games pile up at the end of the season for Minny.

81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic - Western Michigan v Wisconsin
P.J. Fleck brings a magic touch at finding and developing hidden gems to a program that rarely lands a four-star recruit.
Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images

You know, we didn’t even talk about their really strong group of assistant coaches, either - from Ed Warinner (formerly of Ohio State, now just an OL coach) to Robb Smith from Arkansas and Kirk Ciarrocca, who tutored Joe Flacco at Delaware and has a history of turning small-time recruits into big-time quarterbacks. The pieces are definitely in place for a good team.

Andrew: Lastly, does Minnesota win the Big 10 West?

Nick: Without having looked at all the Big Ten West as thoroughly as I have at the Gophers, I’ll say yes for right now. You?

Andrew: One could presume I would choose Northwestern, but Fleck is rowing and running this boat to Indianapolis. Let’s just hope Michigan is there to beat them for a second time.

Nick: I’ll be plenty happy with that.