The most memorable moment from the Gophers tight ends this season all have to do with catches: Brevyn Spann-Ford’s 12-yard touchdown against Illinois and Jake Paulson’s touchdown drop against Nebraska.
But those haven’t been that unit’s most significant contributions, and they’re not the only players quietly adding to the Gophers’ 6-0 start. From blocking tight ends to sacking defensive linemen to fourth-string receivers, there are several players beyond the big names catching the coaches’ attention, at least.
Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, for example, heralded tight ends such as Paulson and Ko Kieft, along with the entire offensive line, for their blocking, which has helped the Gophers rush for more than 650 yards with just one sack allowed the past two games. That’s a marked improvement from the start of the season.
Ciarrocca said with the talent the Gophers have at wide receiver — with starters Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell — he doesn’t stay awake at night trying to draw up passing plays for his tight ends, even though that’s often how people judge whether a tight end is good or not. In fact, Demetrius Douglas plays behind that receiving trio and handles punt returns, and even he’s going a bit unnoticed.
“Demetrius doesn’t get enough credit for all the things he’s done,” Fleck said, referencing long third-down and fourth-down catches against Georgia Southern to help the Gophers win. “… We wouldn’t be ranked or anything like that [without those plays]. He has done a great job on the special teams and been a reliable receiver when we need him.”
Catches are a measurable stat. But offensive linemen and tight ends can’t rack up blocking numbers.
On the offensive line, Ciarrocca specifically praised Blaise Andries’ versatility to play guard and tackle as needed. He sees that same ability in Curtis Dunlap Jr., though the freshman has played only right guard so far since he is still young in his development. But Fleck specifically praised Dunlap’s game in the 34-7 win against Nebraska this past week.
Center John Michael Schmitz has also earned his way into the starting lineup, setting a tough tone up front. Ciarrocca nicknamed him the “Tasmanian devil” because of his attitude, tenacity and quickness.
“They’ve been getting some credit now with the way we’ve run the ball the last couple weeks,” Ciarrocca said. “But for the most part, nobody really talks about the offensive line until it doesn’t go right.”
Defense has its share of star players, such as linebacker Kamal Martin, safety Antoine Winfield Jr., and rush end Carter Coughlin. Fleck said defensive lineman Keonte Schad is lost in the shuffle sometimes but has been playing at a high level this season.
Defensive tackle Sam Renner “isn’t under-sung anymore,” according to defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, after the senior had a breakout four-tackle, one-sack game against Nebraska. One big performance — or two in a row, as the offensive line has done — can gain some notice. But other players’ skills are more subtle.
Defensive end Winston DeLattiboudere, for example, is someone who will never lead the team in tackles but does set the standard for playing and practicing hard, Rossi said. And linebacker Thomas Barber didn’t amass 15 tackles like Martin did in the most recent game, but his presence on the field has been crucial.
Rossi remembered a tricky Nebraska play, where the Cornhuskers tried to run their tight end vertical down the field to beat the coverage.
“Barber saw it and covered it, and it was a 2-yard gain,” Rossi said. “No one notices things like that.”