High level football, with fans in stands, returned to Minnesota on Saturday when the Gophers held their annual Maroon vs Gold spring game at TCF Bank Stadium. This one was different, however. Because so many seniors stuck around for the additional year of eligibility they were offered, Fleck’s squad is rostering over 90 players right now. That’s quite an increase from the 60-70 we normally see during spring workouts.
College football in the spring is a transition period where last year’s departing seniors, draftees and transfers are already gone but most freshmen are yet to arrive. No matter how deep the rosters are, however, you can only take so much from a glorified scrimmage between teammates with nothing more than a homemade trophy and a week of bragging rights on the line.
PJ Fleck acknowledged as much before the game, admitting that jobs won’t be won in the spring. Still, showing out now can set guys up with better opportunities in the fall and there are a lot of future jobs up for grabs. The Maroon team, led by Tanner Morgan and Chris Autman-Bell, won a close contest (24-17) that came down to the final drive… but who cares.
Here’s what I did take away from Saturday’s Minnesota Gophers spring game, which included a postgame press conference featuring Fleck and a few players.
— Minnesota Sports Fan (@realmnsportsfan) May 1, 2021
Terell Smith clinches the victory for the Maroon Team with the INT! pic.twitter.com/kEACwMgq7Q— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) May 1, 2021
1.) Football is fun (especially with fans)
Around the country, Fleck gets criticism for his raw-raw coaching style and constant positive energy. Why someone would receive so much vitriol over those qualities goes over my head. What I did catch at Saturday’s spring game, however, is how much fun his team has.
The 2021 spring game serves as a reminder and gives us insight into the fun and joy that this team exudes. There’s a reason why so many seniors are returning, even after such a disappointing record in 2020. OL Conner Olson is a fucking doctor.
The game was competitive but there were opportunities to see some personality from coaches and players that aren’t generally available during real game days. Like, throwing a TD pass with your 1st round NFL talent offensive tackle, Daniel Faalele or running it in with another offensive lineman, Sam Schlueter. Maybe even a “Philly Special” for Tanner Morgan?
Oh and fans in the stands, even if it’s just 25% capacity, is fun too.
— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) May 1, 2021
2.) Chris Autman-Bell is
a the dude
There was one big piece to the Gopher football puzzle who was missing Saturday. Texas A&M transfer, (WR) Dylan Wright, was in street clothes down on the field so we didn’t get to see him show off. Fleck wouldn’t offer reasons for why guys were pulled from rosters before the game, other than to mention that they weren’t for disciplinary reasons.
One dude we did get to see show off, though, was Chris Autman-Bell. He certainly reminded everyone who this team’s WR1 is now that Rashod Bateman is a Baltimore Raven. CRAB finished the game with 4 catches, amounting to exactly 100 yards and a touchdown. It wasn’t just the numbers though… it was how he went up and grabbed them. There were a handful of really nice catches in this game, showcasing the young depth at the position. Daniel Jackson (4 REC, 63), Clay Geary (4 REC, 74 YDS) and true freshman, Brady Boyd (2 REC, 60 YDS) all had nice days for the Gold team.
3.) Zack is back but no threat to Tanner
We got to see Zack Annexstad throwing footballs during a game on Saturday and that was a long time coming, after knee surgery and a healthy Tanner Morgan kept him sidelined for most of two seasons. Zack still throws a nice ball and I like his willingness and ability to run… but at this point in his career, he’s no threat to Tanner’s position as the starter.
Morgan finished the game with less yards and less attempts than Annexstad but he threw for one TD. Zack couldn’t find the end zone but did find Maroon defenders twice with costly interceptions. Morgan has his flaws but he’s the obvious QB1 both on and off the field. He’s the leader of Fleck’s Gophers until he decides to call it quits.
4.) Resting Mo
Mohamed Ibrahim took a lot of carries last season and has racked up quite a few during his career. In 2021-22, he’s the weapon that’ll be tasked with leading the Minnesota Gophers to whatever promise land they’re seeking. The spring program for Mo is rest.
Ibrahim is a practicing Muslim and he’s been observing the Ramadan holiday since April 12 (finishes May 12). Mo and the Gophers have used that time to get better at the mental side of football. He’s still spending a lot of time with players and coaches and he’s still one of the media session staples but his focus is just a bit different.
I think spring rest is what’s best for Mohamed Ibrahim anyway. Honestly, I still think going pro after last year’s legendary performance, was best for him. But, the NFL will wait and Gopher fans will gladly soak in one more season of bowling ball Mo busting through tacklers while racking up stupid amounts of yards and touchdowns.
Really, this scrimmage taught us little about what we’ll see from the Minnesota Gophers come fall when they start playing real games against other schools (like Ohio State on September 2). But PJ Fleck is much more confident than he has been in years past. Expectations are down and, while young in some positions, his team has a lot more experience and depth than it ever has.
If he and his staff can press the right buttons, I think he’s excited about the 2021-22 season his team can put together.
Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan