Will PJ Fleck Allow Athan Kaliakmanis to Throw Gophers into B1G West Contention?

Photo: Gopher Sports - Brad Rempel

You’re seeing the hype build around the Minnesota Gophers new starting quarterback, Athan Kaliakmanis. PJ Fleck has officially named the Antioch, IL native as QB1 and content featuring “The Greek Rifle” has been hitting the internet from all outlets for the last month, in an effort to familiarize the fanbase with the new centerpiece of their offense.

The Arrival of Athan Kaliakmanis

FOX 9 keyed on Athan’s “mamba mentality back in July. The Associated Press did a feature on him a couple of weeks ago. KSTP (Ch. 5) caught up with Kaliakmanis at the State Fair earlier this week, the Pioneer Press touched on how good he was on the scout team, even as a freshman in 2019.

“This dude would make the throws … and ones were crazy — like damn,” Durr told the Pioneer Press. “It was nothing we could do about it. He was zipping the ball. We knew where we were going to be at.”

Nubin recalls one practice in particular when Kaliakmanis didn’t miss many, if any, throws.

“It was ridiculous,” Nubin said. “We are sitting there like, ‘Are we going to have tough week this week? C’mon now.”

Pioneer Press (8-25-2023)

The Star Tribune just named him as the most important of eight key players, entering the season. I’ve been writing about Athan for years and focused heavily on the redshirt freshman last week, when I wrote about how underrated the 2023 Gophers are, entering the season.

Athan is 6-4, 210 pounds and his right arm is a cannon. He throws well on the run and his legs are a legitimate threat defenses must account for, both as part of the planned run game and when he’s forced to scramble. Kaliakmanis was far from perfect last year but he got better as PJ took the shackles off and the season rolled on.

College Football World is Sleeping on 2023 Gophers
Times are a-changin…

Yes, Fleck has built an old-school offensive reputation that emphasizes the run game and focuses heavily on winning the time of possession battle. But PJ has made it clear he plans to attack defenses differently in 2023. Not only has he said as much, both in one-on-one interviews and during press conferences, but the 6-year Gophers head coach has set up the roster in a way that makes it clear, passing will be a huge part of the plan.

Sure, Fleck went out and snagged one of the best running backs in the transfer portal this offseason, with Sean Tyler, who put up a respectable 2,402 yards and 16 touchdowns during his final two seasons at Western Michigan. He’s the expected starter.

Still, Tyler isn’t Mo Ibrahim and PJ Fleck knows it. That’s why he successfully shopped for major upgrades to the Gophers’ air raid weapons this offseason too. His final transfer portal shopping cart including two wide receivers who enter 2023 on the Biletnikoff Award watch list, Elijah Spencer (Charlotte) and Corey Crooms (Western Michigan).

But that’s not where Kaliakmanis’ receiving options end. Daniel Jackson returns as the arguable WR1 and, former WR1, Chris Autman-Bell is healthy again, after having his ACL repaired last year. Don’t forget about Brevyn Spann-Ford, who’s possibly the best receiving tight end in the country.

Without a doubt, this is the most talented set of offensive weapons featured at the University of Minnesota since 2019, when Tyler Johnson, Rashad Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell made Tanner Morgan look like a day 1 NFL draft pick.

PJ Fleck plans to air it out but will he put plans into action?

PJ Fleck can plan for more passing, on offense, and push a preseason narrative emphasizing his new QB. Hell, he can even build a depth chart that backs up the hype.

But at the end of the day, Fleck still has to prove he’s willing to take the shackles off of Athan Kaliakmanis, when the bullets start flying this Thursday vs Nebraska. Can PJ allow Athan Kaliakmanis’ right arm to win or lose games? Doing so will require a bullish effort to ride with Athan Kaliakmanis, through good times and bad. It’s the Greek Rifle’s first season as a full-time starter. He is guaranteed to make mistakes.

If there is one thing fans need to know about Kaliakmanis, it’s his gunslinger mentality. He’s going to try to fit balls into tight windows and he is going to throw interceptions. Is PJ willing to put the ball right back into Athan’s right hand, even after he screws up?

Because, in the past, Fleck has squashed aggressive game plans, in favor of more run-heavy, safe play-calling, when his quarterbacks have thrown early interceptions or made incorrect reads, to start games. Can Fleck “change his best” in order to build Kaliakmanis into the top-3 Big Ten QB this offense needs? He’ll have to if the 2023 Minnesota Gophers are going to win the West Division.

If so, this will be one of the most exciting offensive seasons in Gopher history. If not, it will be impossible for Minnesota to keep up with opponents like Ohio State and Michigan. It would also put them in grave danger of losing AGAIN to Iowa.

The only chance this 2023 squad has at matching or exceeding the 9 wins it has posted in all three of its last full seasons, is by Fleck & Co trusting Athan Kaliakmanis to lead its offense into the future. This coaching staff must move on from their archaic offensive philosophies or this program will take a major step back and likely see a big transfer portal exodus at season’s end.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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