He has experienced the pomp and circumstance of his first season opener with the Gophers, and he has been through the ups and downs of a 5-7 campaign that followed. So, might P.J. Fleck have settled in and reached a level of comfort entering his second season in Minnesota?
“You’re never comfortable as a coach, ever,’’ Fleck said Sunday. “… You’re paid to be paranoid all the time.’’
How paranoia and preparation merge for the Gophers in the 2018 season will begin to play out Thursday night in the season opener against New Mexico State at TCF Bank Stadium. The Gophers are 17 ½-point favorites over the Aggies, who lost their opener 29-7 to Wyoming on Saturday night. Fleck watched that game — in which New Mexico State’s offense didn’t cross midfield until two minutes were left in the fourth quarter — but didn’t want to read too much into the Aggies’ performance.
“I don’t think it’s just a one-game evaluation, right? This is an accumulation of what they did last year,’’ Fleck said, pointing to New Mexico State earning its first bowl bid in 57 years and winning that game to finish 7-6.
“One thing I know,’’ Fleck added, “they’re a dangerous football team.’’
Fleck’s focus is on what his team must do, which is grow up quickly. Though the Gophers haven’t released their depth chart yet, they could have upward of 20 true freshmen or redshirt freshmen in first- or second-team offensive and defensive roles. That begins at quarterback, where true freshman Zack Annexstad will start vs. the Aggies. Fleck doesn’t plan on limiting the playbook.
“Our quarterback is going to be expected to run the offense. … It’s not: How much do we put [in], how little do we put [in]?’’ the coach said. “Our offense is going to run the way our offense needs to run.’’
Senior running back Rodney Smith said upperclassmen are helping to ease the transition for the freshmen who’ll make their collegiate debuts.
“The first night under the lights, it’s exciting,’’ he said. “We’ve practiced at night, so their first time under the lights won’t be during game day. … Just letting them know they’ve prepared for it since they’ve been here. They’re here to make plays and be consistent. Those guys know they can do it.’’
Fleck has been impressed with his team’s habits during spring practice and training camp. His message to his players for the opener is simple: Have fun.
“We’re practicing like professionals. I love how this team practiced this year,’’ he said. “You’ve got to play like a kid. Go out there and have fun and actually play. … Play like you did when the game is really fun, when you’re youthful, when you’re young, the reason why you joined football.’’
• Fleck said redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim and true freshman Bryce Williams will be the main options at running back behind Smith. “He’s not the biggest, strongest guy,’’ Fleck said of the 5-10, 205-pound Ibrahim, “but he is a tremendous running back for our system. He fits us.’’
As for Williams, the coach said: “Bryce has developed a lot in the last probably five weeks. He’s really separated himself, and I think he’s mature enough and ready enough to play.’’
• Jacob Herbers will be the Gophers’ first option at punter on Thursday, but Fleck said Alex Melvin could see time, too. “That will be an evolving week-to-week type feel just on who is punting it better,’’ Fleck said.
• Fleck has a plan for who will be the third-string quarterback behind Annexstad and Tanner Morgan, but he wouldn’t divulge it. “We’ll have to be very creative,’’ he said. “I hope we don’t get to that point, but if we get to that point, we’ll handle it.’’
A pair of redshirt freshmen, Samuel Pickerign and Jon Santaga, are the other QBs on the roster. Another possible option is sophomore Seth Green, who played in one game at QB last year but has moved to wide receiver this season.
• Thursday’s opener will be televised by BTN. Lisa Byington will be the play-by-play announcer, with former Wayzata and NFL linebacker James Laurinaitis as analyst and Michell McMahon as sideline reporter.