A college football team's media day typically has coaches and players brimming with optimism. No team has taken a loss on the season, and hope still springs eternal.
On Tuesday at the Athletes Village, the Gophers held their media day with plenty of smiles and goodwill, but also with the attitude that they have a lot of work to accomplish between Wednesday's opening practice drills and the Sept. 2 opener against Ohio State.
"This is a very important year for us,'' said coach P.J. Fleck, entering his fifth season as Gophers coach, coming off a 3-4 season hampered by COVID-19 issues but with the 11-2 breakthrough season of 2019 not yet a distant memory.
Fleck and Co. want to make sure that 2021 looks more like 2019 than 2020, and to do that, the coaching staff put the team through rigorous spring practices, aiming to make up for the development time lost to COVID-19 and setting the tone for the season.
"We got after it in the spring,'' Fleck said. "If you ask a lot of our football players, that was probably one of the hardest things they've went through just from the whole season, coming back and all the things they've been through.''
It's just the approach that the Gophers need, according to defensive lineman Micah Dew-Treadway, entering his third year with Minnesota after four at Notre Dame. Dew-Treadway described how the tense moments in big games serve as a bonding agent among players.
"This is hard. Let's get through it,'' he said. "That's the type of stuff that brings us together. Being connected is something I think is very undervalued.''
Another reason for the businesslike approach: Fleck believes this team can do big things, and the roster supports the opinion. Quarterback Tanner Morgan, who is 18-8 as a starter and owns school single-season records for passing yards (3,253) and touchdown passes (30) set in 2019, leads an offense built to rebound. Mohamed Ibrahim is the reigning Big Ten Running Back of the Year and has been named to several preseason All-America teams. The offensive line boasts seven players who have started 10 or more games in their careers. On defense, the front seven has been bolstered by a trio of transfers expected to make immediate impacts.
"We have a lot of depth,'' Fleck said, "and I think that's critical anytime you want to be a really good football team.''
All those attributes will be put to a stiff test right away when Ohio State, last year's national runner-up to Alabama, visits Huntington Bank Stadium on the first Thursday in September for a nationally televised game. Before turning their attention completely to the Buckeyes, the Gophers know they need to make huge strides during training camp.
"We're really process-driven, and we have to change our best on a daily basis and come together,'' Morgan said. "That's how we'll be able to look back at ourselves and say, 'OK, we've given ourselves a chance to be successful Sept. 2.' ''
Added guard Conner Olson, "Ohio State will be Ohio State when we play them, and in the meantime the only thing we can do is prepare ourselves.''
Like Dew-Treadway, Olson pointed to the bond that the Gophers have developed. He came back for a sixth season that the NCAA allowed by not charging players a year of eligibility in 2020.
"These guys are my brothers,'' he said. "It's an honor and a pleasure to keep coming back.''
Chris Autman-Bell, the Gophers top returning receiver, sees the work put in during spring football as carrying a lasting influence.
"I can say one thing for sure. I say this team is connected over the course of the spring and summer,'' he said. "And with everything that has happened between the 2020 season up until now, I think this team is super connected and just ready to go out and have fun.''