Sid Hartman
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One of the big story lines regarding P.J. Fleck taking over as Gophers coach has been whether he is downplaying expectations for a Gophers squad that went 9-4 last season and won its bowl game with a depleted roster against Washington State.

The Gophers finished fourth last season in scoring offense in the Big Ten at 29.3 points per game, though their total offense ranked 11th. They ranked fifth in scoring defense (22.1 points per game) and fourth in total defense.

But for Fleck the question isn’t about what the team did last year. Instead he wants the team to realize that last year, no matter the record or success or failures, has nothing to do with this season.

“I’m not saying it’s not possible [to have a better record], I’m just saying last year has nothing to do with this year,” Fleck said. “Whether you go 2-10, 0-12, 1-11, 9-4, 10-2, it has nothing to do with this year. It’s a completely new football team.”

USA Today: Gophers will go 2-7 in Big Ten

And while the team does have a solid group of returning players, Fleck said that when you scratch beneath the surface of the starters, that’s where the team gets thin.

“Fifty-eight of our players are either true freshmen or redshirt freshmen,” he said. “We’re one of the most inexperienced teams in the country, and we don’t have a lot of depth. But we have a ton of heart. We have a ton of guys who have played. But it’s the combination of that depth that we have to develop over camp.”

And when it comes to those freshmen, Fleck said there’s no question that many are going to see time on the field this season.

“There’s going to be a lot of freshmen that play,” he said. “Eventually there’s going to be a lot of freshmen that play.”

QB battle

With the absence of four-year starter Mitch Leidner, Fleck and his staff have six quarterbacks on the roster — freshmen Samuel Pickerign, Jaran Roste and Tanner Morgan, redshirt freshman Seth Green, redshirt sophomore Demry Croft and redshirt senior Conor Rhoda. And while Fleck has been coy about his quarterback battle, he did say it appears the starting job will come down to Rhoda or Croft.

“Yeah, we’re getting there. I’d start to say it’s starting to look that way,” Fleck said. “I’m not ready to say those are the final two, but we’re getting closer to that.

“We have to start weaning that down towards the actual scrimmage on Saturday, and hopefully we can come up with a decision in a week or two.”

Personally, I think it will be Croft because of his outstanding performance in the spring game.

Leidner’s rushing ability was put to heavy use under former head coaches Jerry Kill and Tracy Cleays, as he averaged about 374 rushing yards and just over eight rushing touchdowns per season.

And while Fleck says the team doesn’t want its quarterbacks running too much, if Croft is named starter one would have to think the fleet-footed quarterback, who rushed for 845 yards and 10 touchdowns in his senior season at Boylan High School in Illinois, would be asked to do some running.

“I hope they don’t have to run too much, but our run game does call for our [quarterbacks] to have to run a little bit, not a lot,” Fleck said. “But if one does run a little bit better than the other, then maybe we’ll run a little bit more. It just depends on the health of our football team as we go through the year.”

Practice underway

With opening day three weeks away, Fleck said some of the early concern about depth on the offensive line and defensive line has gotten better with the return of some injured players. But he still thinks the offensive line is going to be a work in progress.

“Defensive line is a little deeper, I think, than our offensive line,” he said. “But we have to be able to develop some guys pretty quickly up front on the offensive side.”

He was asked if any players have surprised him early on in practice.

“Demetrius Douglas, No. 82, is having a phenomenal camp, the true freshman at wide receiver,” Fleck said. “I think in the secondary when you start to look at some guys like Rey Estes, who moved over from quarterback to defensive back. [Tight end] Nate Umlor I think is doing a tremendous job, and [offensive lineman] Blaise Andries. Those are some freshmen that are really popping out and standing out right now.”

Does he think the players have absorbed some of the information they learned during spring camp?

“They understand the culture, understand the demands, understand the expectations of practice, they understand that we need them to change every single day and get better and not stay the same, at all,” Fleck said. “I think we’re just a better football team, and that’s what you want. I can’t say we’re ready to win the Rose Bowl today, but I can say we’re a better football team than we were yesterday.”

And finally, Fleck was asked if he’s getting excited for opening day.

“I’m looking forward to tonight’s meetings,” he said. “I don’t look much further than that.”

Jottings

• The Twins will open the season on the road next year, at Baltimore on March 29, and have their home opener with Seattle in early April.

• The Twins drew two of their biggest crowds of the year on Monday and Tuesday against Milwaukee with 31,339 and 34,185 respectively. But they rank 23rd overall in baseball with an average of 25,062 fans per night. The teams drawing fewer fans are Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, the Chicago White Sox, Miami, Oakland and Tampa Bay.

• Fleck may be responsible for the sale of 1,200 new Gophers football season tickets

• Tickets are selling well for the Sept. 23 football game at Target Field between St. John’s and St. Thomas, which starts at 1:10 p.m.

• Andy MacPhail and Michael Cuddyer will be inducted into the Twins Hall of Fame during the weekend series Aug. 18-20 vs. the Arizona Diamondbacks.

• Tuesday night marked the anniversary of Twins manager Paul Molitor stealing his 500th base, which he did in a game against Baltimore in 1998, becoming just the fifth player in baseball history to record 3,000 hits and 500 steals. There are seven members in the group today. … Byron Buxton was named the winner of the Heart and Hustle Award for the Twins, which is given to one player on each team who embodies the values, spirit and traditions of the game. Previous winners for the Twins were Eduardo Nunez last season and Brian Dozier in 2014 and 2015.

Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. shartman@startribune.com