MINNEAPOLIS -- Tyler Johnson was present at the Gophers football team’s spring practice on Friday.
No, the record-setting receiver hasn’t found a secret year of eligibility. The Minneapolis native preparing for the NFL draft was at the U’s indoor practice facility in street clothes with his cellphone in hand, watching his former team discover who might be able to help replace his production.
On the field was junior to-be Rashod Bateman, the Big Ten receiver of the year, without his top running mate and the position group’s leader for the past three seasons.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck felt like the senior Johnson was more the “Batman” to Bateman’s “Robin” in 2019.
“I wouldn’t say it’s easier, but you have the ability to be Robin and come in when you need to be able to do that,” Fleck said. Bateman “is now that Batman, and we need the other guys to continue to emerge.”
Bateman is now bigger and smarter, Fleck said, with Bateman saying it’s lean muscle mass, not pounds, and he has been working with quarterbacks Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad to better understand coverages.
Those coverages will pay even more attention to Bateman in 2020 unless Chris Autman-Bell, Demetrius Douglas and the rest of the receiver corps step up into those “Robin” roles.
Starting right tackle Daniel Faalele walked off in the middle of Friday’s practice despite Annexstad, a close friend, trying to keep him out there. It was a head-scratching scene, but Faalele returned a little while later.
“All I want to see is a response,” Fleck said. “He came back. I think he had to collect his thoughts. He was in there for a lot of plays. He has to keep getting better, but these are kids. We are constantly challenging them, and it’s not just on the field. It’s the emotional and the mental part.
“However he had to deal with that, he dealt with that. But he was right back,” Fleck continued. “That’s what I wanted to see. I’m not sitting there to judge the minute after that happens.”
Running back fumbles
Presumptive starting running back Mohamed Ibrahim has been excused from spring practice while he’s on a study abroad trip. The other running backs, including Treyson Potts and Bryce Williams, had some down moments Friday with fumbles during the team portions of practice.
Which running backs join Ibrahim in the Gophers’ stable is a big question leading up to the spring game on April 4.
Rush to rush end
Thomas Rush has switched positions from linebacker to rush end since last season. With Carter Coughlin gone from that position, the U is looking for replacements along with expected standout Boye Mafe.
“If you look at (Rush’s) testing numbers, they are freakish,” Fleck said. “If we can get that off the line of scrimmage, get him comfortable there. Kind of like Carter, we moved Carter down the line of scrimmage because … there was a little (faster) reaction. The closer Carter got to the line of scrimmage, the better he became.”
Some notable players either absent or limited Friday were cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, linebacker Braelen Oliver, center John Michael Schmitz, tight end Jake Paulson and running backs Jason Williamson and Johnny Santaga.