When P.J. Fleck arrived at Minnesota in 2017, the Gophers head coach routinely pointed out how he inherited only four healthy offensive linemen for his first set of spring practices. A few had transferred out and a few who would play in the fall were out with injuries or were rehabbing from surgery.
Five years later, the U’s O-line boasts 13 players who have started games. They combine for 161 collegiate starts, and going into the 2021 season, it’s believed to be one of the most experienced groups in Division I.
Whether it’s the most or not is hard to nail down because the stat was compiled on a Listserv between sports information directors, and the response rate could be less than 100 percent. If it’s not the utmost, it’s still a ton.
“It’s the deepest offensive line/tight end (group) I’ve been a part of,” Fleck said Saturday. “Part of that is the scholarship numbers and allowing people to come back.”
The Gophers have roughly 95 scholarship players on the roster. Given the pandemic, the NCAA has allowed programs to go above its limit of 85. Meanwhile, the U’s defensive line has its own extensive playing background.
The U’s offensive line is bolstered by the returns of guard/center Conner Olson and tackle Sam Schlueter, both members of the 2016 recruiting class. They opted to take one more year after the NCAA ruled that fall athletes could have an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gophers Athletics forecast 10 additional scholarships for football in 2021-22, and that number is part of the department’s projections to meet Title IX requirements.
“It means so much for (AD) Mark Coyle to allow us to do that because I didn’t have to tell one senior he can’t come back,” Fleck said. “That’s critical.”
After struggling in 2020, the Gophers linebacker corps has been bolstered with the transfer addition of Jack Gibbens and the return of Braelin Oliver, who is coming back from a serious knee injury that cost him all of 2020.
Fleck said Oliver was hesitant in his first few spring practices, but he’s improved and appeared to be fully cleared on Saturday. “Is he back to where he was? Not yet,” Fleck said. “But do I expect him to be back to where he was, if not better, by camp? Yes.”
Quarterback Tanner Morgan celebrated his birthday Saturday with a midday practice and had plans to have dinner with his girlfriend in the evening.
“I’m 22 going on 35,” the follicly challenged signal-caller joked.
Both new Gophers players who wear No. 0 made a play during a seven-on-seven period of practice Saturday.
Cornerback Justin Walley had a pass breakup when Morgan was trying to connect with Chris Autman-Bell on a fade route, and receiver Lemeke Brockington had a nice catch across the middle on a pass from Zack Annexstad.
New receiver Dylan Wright, a 6-foot-3 transfer from Texas A&M, made a nice one-handed catch Saturday, but Fleck was quick to point out that if he can use two hands, well, he should.
The Gophers announced Thursday their spring game will be at 11 a.m. May 1. While the 10,000-ticket allotment was claimed by fans within two hours, the game will be broadcast on Big Ten Network. … Gophers mammoth offensive tackle Daniel Faalele, who is listed at 6-foot-9 and 400 pounds, has lost weight and it should help his mobility. … One of the biggest splash plays of practice came when safety Calvin Swenson intercepted Morgan and was set to return it for a touchdown until the whistle blew. … The Gophers had a handful of players either limited or out Saturday: running backs Mohamed Ibrahim (observing Ramadan), Cam Wiley, Ky Thomas and Jason Williamson; quarterbacks Cole Kramer and Jacob Clark; receiver Doug Emilien; tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford and Bryce Witham; defensive linemen Gage Keys and Jamaal Teague; linebacker Josh Aune; and safety Michael Dixon.