PJ Fleck Must Find Quarterback He Can Trust in Offseason

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The Minnesota Gophers will finish the most difficult regular season of PJ Fleck’s 7-year tenure on Saturday, when they play the Wisconsin Badgers at Huntington Bank Stadium in a game they must win, in order to reach bowl eligibility.

But the frustrations surrounding Minnesota’s 2023 football season aren’t about the 5-6 record, alone. What’s been maddening about this year’s team is the regression of starting quarterback, Athan Kaliakmanis, along with Fleck again refusing to move the Gophers offense out of 1988.

This Minnesota Gophers offense was supposed to be different…

Many of us, myself included, had real hope that Fleck was going to unveil a new and improved passing attack this season, something that looked closer to Big Ten East, than West. Those aspirations seem foolish, in hindsight, but the writing seemed on the wall, back then.

Remember, PJ armed QB Athan Kaliakmanis with better receiving weapons than what this program has rostered since 2019. Or so we thought. Daniel Jackson, Chris Autman-Bell and Brevyn Spann-Ford were all returning. The Gophers then hit the portal and added more talent with Corey Crooms and Elijah Stephens, who both went for over 1000 yards receiving in 2022.

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The offensive transformation seemed inevitable, in part because PJ didn’t really have a choice. With Mo Ibrahim finally out of eligibility and his replacement plans, Bucky Irving and Ky Thomas reaping NIL benefits elsewhere, the 2023 Gophers did not have the depth or high-end talent at running back to hand the ball off like PJ prefers to.

Instead, their highly touted former 4-star recruit did not take the step forward that fans like me thought or hoped he would. So, Fleck followed his instincts and quickly pulled back on the air attack. 11 weeks later, the Gopher passing offense, yet again, ranks near the bottom of the country.

’23 Per Game StatsPass
FBS Rank
(133 Teams)

Big Offseason for PJ Fleck and Gopher offense

Even after riding the 2023 struggle bus, Mark Coyle is not considering a change at head coach, stating Saturday before the Gophers were blown out by Ohio State, that he is absolutely confident Fleck is “the guy”. So now that we know a change at head coach is not happening, it’s time to look at his quarterback situation.

As of now, the Big Ten is getting rid of divisions next season, in favor of a wide-open 18-team Big Ten that will now include west coast teams, Oregon, USC, UCLA and Washington. The Gophers are already up against the odds, in the NIL world we currently live in.

With the West division no longer in existence, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the rest of the West teams living in the past will no longer be able to use their division affiliation as a crutch for why they should not move their offensive mindset into the 21st century.

That’s why the failures from this season should have PJ Fleck thinking about one thing and one thing only, starting next Sunday. How do I get the most elite possible quarterback talent onto my roster for next season?

pj fleck minnesota gophers football quarterback qb
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Gophers need a QB worthy of new-age Big Ten

Yes, Darius Taylor will be another year older next season and (if he sticks around) he’ll offer PJ one of the most elite running back options in the Big Ten. Not only that, but (as long as the best of them stick around) a very young Minnesota defense should be better next year and look more like what a Joe Rossi coached squad usually does.

But, none of those things are guaranteed. And, if you’re going to overcome roster weaknesses during a season, whether they are foreshadowed or not, you need a really good quarterback. Because in today’s football, a top-10 CFB quarterback can make up for nearly everything else a roster doesn’t have to offer.

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Maybe Athan Kaliakmanis finds the talent that made him a 4-star prospect, coming out of high school. This offseason, Fleck cannot concern himself with that. His and Mark Coyle’s jobs are on the line next year and he needs a quarterback to come in that can immediately make him feel better about beating the USC’s and UCLA”s of the world.

Where is Fleck going to find a good quarterback?

Of course, good quarterbacks do not grow on trees and, in 2023-24, the cost a lot of Name, Image and Likeness money. But if I’m PJ, I scrape together whatever penny I can find between now and summer camp to pay the best one I can find. 60% of starting power 5 QBs this season were transfers. They’re out there.

Sure, most of the best quarterbacks in the country play for helmet schools but there are honorable mention QBs on Sportsnaut’s top-10 CFB quarterbacks list from schools like Liberty, Troy, Tulane and Western Kentucky and North Texas. Those teams should not have better quarterbacks than you do.

Maybe it’s a former 5-star recruit who’s sick of sitting on the bench at an SEC school. Maybe it’s a small-school standout from one of the program’s above, who’s proven that group of 5 is not competition enough. Hell, maybe it’s a 4 or 5-star high schooler that won’t currently speak with Fleck because NIL isn’t part of the conversation, yet.

Whatever the avenue, Fleck needs to find something better. Because, if he does not find a quarterback that he actually trusts to lead the Gophers into this new Big Ten era — that includes high-flying teams like Ohio State, Michigan, USC, Oregon and UCLA — he will soon lose his job. So will Mark Coyle. And that is not good for parties on either side.

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