Hope, it’s been said, springs eternal, and that can apply to spring practice for college football teams. Fresh faces step forward to fill vacant lineup spots, upperclassmen are a year stronger and wiser, and optimism flows, with the reality of the actual games that count more than four months into the future.
The Gophers completed spring practice in Year 2 under coach P.J. Fleck with Monday’s practice, and Thursday night’s spring game served as a glimpse of what might be on display when the season opens on Aug. 30 against New Mexico State. Here are some observations of spring practice and especially the spring game:
QB picturing clearing
Entering spring practice, the buzz about the Gophers’ quarterback situation focused on sophomore Vic Viramontes, the transfer from Riverside (Calif.) City College who was the top-ranked junior college dual-threat quarterback in the recruiting Class of 2019.
Leaving spring practice, that buzz is about Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad, who stood out in the spring game.
Morgan, a redshirt freshman, completed 18 of 28 passes for 272 yards and two TDs for the Maroon team in a 24-20 loss to the Gold squad. He was sharp in the two-minute drill, going 4-for-4 for 79 yards in an 84-yard TD march in the final 1:21 of the first half and driving his team 56 yards into scoring position in the final 58 seconds of the fourth quarter.
Annexstad, a preferred walk-on from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., completed five of seven passes for 79 yards on the winning drive for the Gold. He finished 11-for-18 for 186 yards.
Viramontes went 1-for-3 for 1 yard and rushed six times for 21 yards. He fumbled twice, as did Morgan.
“The ball was on the ground way too much for me,” Fleck said of his QBs.
The stars are the stars
We knew the Gophers have a couple of high-end offensive weapons in senior running back Rodney Smith and junior wide receiver Tyler Johnson. Their performances Thursday confirmed that.
Smith tore off a 15-yard run and caught a 56-yard touchdown pass on the first two times he touched the ball. He added a 31-yard TD run and finished with five carries for 67 yards.
Johnson caught six passes for 120 yards and TDs of 33 and 23 yards. His first TD grab was a one-handed thing of beauty over defensive back Antonio Shenault that showed off the athletic ability that makes Johnson a difference-maker.
With both Smith and Johnson, Fleck expects more than just big plays.
“Rodney’s leadership is rubbing off on those guys,” the coach said, pointing to his young quarterbacks. “He’s way more vocal, and he’s showing them how to be a leader. And they’re responding really well.”
Smith and Johnson will receive much of an opposing defense’s attention, so the Gophers must develop complementary players. A trio of redshirt freshmen — running back Mohamed Ibrahim (19 carries, 104 yards) and receivers Chris Autman-Bell (four catches, 76 yards) and Demetrius Douglas (five catches, 71 yards) — have the inside track on those roles.
Depth is needed on defense, too.
Two of the Gophers’ top defensive players, junior linebacker Thomas Barber and junior defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr., were held out of the spring game because of precautionary reasons. Meanwhile, some youngsters stepped up. Sophomore defensive back Calvin Swenson led all players with 13 tackles, plus a sack. True freshman linebacker Thomas Rush had nine tackles. And redshirt freshman defensive lineman Boye Mafe had eight tackles, including two for loss and a sack.
Fleck liked what he saw from the defense, which combined for six sacks, 12 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles. “We had our hands on the ball a lot, we able to get some takeaways and put pressure on the quarterback,” he said.