Minnesota’s spring game proved it, Gophers are going through an identity shift

Oct 31, 2015; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Rashad Still (88) rushes for a touchdown after making a catch in the first half against thew Michigan Wolverines at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Owning an identity isn’t a new concept to Minnesota.

To the contrary, the Gophers built a reputation as a smash-mouth program with a ground-and-pound mentality under Jerry Kill. That same mindset was reinforced during Tracy Claeys’ temporary stint.

That identity worked. During that six-year stretch (2011-2016), the Gophers were 40-37 and ended 2016 with a 9-4 mark, the program’s best record in over a decade.

But P.J. Fleck isn’t interested in what’s been successful before.

He may not make that statement publicly, but it’s clear that he’s introducing a new brand of football to Minneapolis and giving the Gophers a new identity. One that could eventually get this program over the proverbial hump.

Oct 15, 2016; College Park, MD, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers quarterback Conor Rhoda (15) passes against the Maryland Terrapins at Byrd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

In Minnesota’s spring game, Fleck didn’t try to disguise the new identity that he wants his offense to adopt moving forward. And just as it was at Western Michigan, the passing attack is going to be vitally important.

Fleck’s desire to air the ball out was evident at the team’s scrimmage, even if the offense kept things rather simple.

“We are where we are,” Fleck said about the progress his team has made following the spring game. “We were very vanilla today.”

That “vanilla” look included this long pass from Demry Croft to Rashad Still on the first play of the game:

Croft made a throw that has been absent from the repertoire of most Minnesota quarterbacks over the last decade. The downfield strike on the opening snap might’ve been the most exciting play of the afternoon, but it was far from the end of the Gophers’ air attack.

Both Croft and Conor Rhoda – the top two quarterbacks right now – threw the ball frequently. The passing game is going to be an integral part of the offense, and could even become the identity for the Gophers in the future.

RELATED: Five Observations from Minnesota’s Spring Game

But right now, Fleck admits, there’s still a lot of work left.

“We’ve got a long way to go at quarterback. I know that,” he said. “It takes time to develop a quarterback.”

Fortunately, while Minnesota’s quarterbacks continue to progress and learn a new system, they’ll have a strong backfield to rely on.

Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks are going to provide the Gophers with one of the best one-two punches in the B1G. And Jonathon Femi-Cole looked pretty good in the spring game, too, giving Minnesota even more depth at running back.

Possessing that strength at running back won’t be important strictly during the interim period as Minnesota acclimates to a more pass-friendly scheme. Running the football has been a staple for the Gophers over the past six years. That’ll still be an effective weapon under Fleck.

In Fleck’s last three years at Western Michigan, the Broncos were as well balanced as any team in the MAC. Sure, Zach Terrell and Corey Davis received most of the accolades in 2016, but the ability to run the ball was critical.

In both 2015 and 2016, Western Michigan averaged over 200 yards per game on the ground and through the air. These are just some of the basic numbers from Fleck’s offense (per game):

Year  Carries Rush yards Pass attempts Pass yards
 2016 45.3 228.8 27 252.4
2015 40.5 203.7 31.1 287.4
2014 38.7 170.9 28.6 267.3

The idea that Minnesota’s rushing attack is going to become obsolete is unfounded. But it won’t be as prominent as it was during the Kill/Claeys era.

Over the last six seasons, the Gophers have eclipsed a 200-yard averaged through the air just once. In 2015, they ranked eighth in the B1G, averaging 214.8 yards per game. Balancing that load is the focus of Fleck’s offense.

Developing a quarterback who can consistently hit his targets downfield will be a huge improvement, especially at Minnesota. That should open avenues on the ground, too.

RELATED: Watch: Minnesota Fans Unsuccessfully Field Punts

Spring games can be funky to evaluate. No question, the Gophers looked a lot better offensively than they have in recent seasons. But with so many injuries and a new defensive look, too, it’s hard to tell just how far along this team has come.

Minnesota did look different, though. Even if it’s still a work-in-progress, Fleck is introducing an offensive identity that can thrive in the B1G.

Especially when it graduates from that “vanilla” stage.

REFERENCES

Photo Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

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