Given anonymity, Big Ten football coaches dish on Gophers and coach P.J. Fleck
MINNEAPOLIS -- Big Ten football coaches offered praise and critiques in anonymous opinions about their peers with Athlon Sports this summer.
The college sports website, which is known for its preview magazines, published eight comments from varius coaches about the Gophers. They shared observations on head coach P.J. Fleck’s first two seasons, Minnesota’s recruiting uptick, the assistant coaching carousel, wondered about personnel and were impressed with the program’s overall direction.
Here are four of the coaches’ statements put into context:
“The culture looks like it’s working. They were a very different team on the field from (2017) to ’18. In ’17, you could see them, player by player, figuring out if they were all the way bought in on the systems and the attitudes.”
Fleck would agree with this opinion after Minnesota finished 5-7 in 2017. There is no better example of those struggles than the Gophers being throttled by a combined 70-0 score in season-closing losses to Northwestern and Wisconsin.
In 2018, Fleck preached a “refuse to lose” mentality was needed in his team. It showed down the stretch with wins in three of the final four games. In season-ending victories, Minnesota outscored the Badgers and Georgia Tech by a combined 71-25.
“You get the sense coaching against him that P.J. Fleck is more of the new CEO type of college head coach than a pure X’s and O’s.”
If this seems like a shot at Fleck, it doesn’t have to be. Previous Minnesota coach Jerry Kill also talked about the demands on head coaches these days. They span much more than what play to call on fourth and 1.
All college coaches have to balance needs for fundraising and boosters, recruiting, media and general pulls to be the face of the program.
But during open practices, Fleck is very hands on. He gravitates to the offense, with his background in coaching wide receivers. He will detail the finer points of the position with the likes of star Tyler Johnson on down the depth chart.
Mic’d up for practices, he critiques and praises individuals across the field.
This season, Fleck is stressing how more games are lost than won, which means teaching his team about what to do in certain situations. During some preseason practices, he discusses rule changes, such as targeting.
“I think defensively they’re doing a good job, but they don’t have the personnel.”
The Gophers have all-Big Ten caliber players at each level of its defense — from rush end Carter Coughlin to linebacker Thomas Barber and strong safety Antoine Winfield Jr.
But this comment carries weight, especially with wide-open preseason position battles at free safety, cornerback, three-technique tackle and replacing last year’s top tackler, outside linebacker Blake Cashman.
“They’re recruiting better than that program ever has.”
The Gophers shared a graphic last week touting their 2020 class as a consensus Top 25 group, according to the top three recruiting services (247sports, rivals and ESPN). They have since slipped just out of the top 25.
But this remains better than the 10-year average that ranks Minnesota on average as the 54th best recruiting class in the country, per 247sports.com’s archive.
The Gophers have been bringing in more players that look the part, including top 2019 recruit, Tyler Nubin, a 6-foot-3 cornerback from Illinois who looks like he can contribute immediately this fall.
The 2021 recruiting class has a headliner in four-star quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, of Antioch, Ill. He and his brother, three-star receiver Dino Kaliakmanis, committed to Minnesota in March.
“The real question there is the new assistants. It’s a little strange when you have a big ‘culture’ guy like P.J. to rotate that many assistants early on at (a Power Five) job. That shows a sense of urgency to get it right.”
Among the 10 on-field assistants, four have held the same job for all three of Fleck’s seasons: offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, running back coach Kenni Burns, receiver coach Matt Simon and special-teams coordinator Rob Wenger.
The defensive side has seen nearly constant turnover. Fleck fired defensive coordinator Robb Smith in the second half of the 2018 season, promoting Joe Rossi, who has been with Fleck in different roles all three years.
The defensive line and secondary have had new position coaches each year. Fleck has tinkered with the addition of the 10th assistant before the 2018 season. He went with a pass-rush specialist coach on top of a general D-line coach in 2018. This season he went back to one D-Line coach, while separating the secondary into cornerback and safety coaches.
Fleck’s biggest retention has been keeping Cirarrocca, who appeared to be gone to West Virginia in January before a change of heart.