The B1G 10: PJ Fleck didn't need to seek out transfer QBs. He already has his man.
Every Tuesday, Matt Hayes tackles the 10 hottest topics in the Big Ten …
1. The B1G Story
P.J. Fleck has been preaching for 2 years now about Athan Kaliakmanis.
The guy is different, he says. He’ll change everything you’ve known about Minnesota quarterbacks.
Then Fleck went out and proved it after the 2022 season. Not by what he did — but what he didn’t do.
Fleck didn’t add a quarterback from the transfer portal, opting to stay with Kaliakmanis, who had 3 TDs and 4 INTs as a freshman backup.
“Everybody got a chance to see Athan’s ability,” Fleck said. “We’ve seen it from Day 1.”
That’s what makes this season so intriguing at Minnesota. In 6 previous years under Fleck, Minnesota has been good enough to be an intriguing distraction in November — but not good enough at the most important position on the field to be more than that.
Now there’s 1 season remaining for divisions in the Big Ten, 1 last chance for Minnesota to win the West Division and advance to the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time in program history.
For the first time in Fleck’s time in Minneapolis, he has a quarterback who can stress defenses with arm talent, athletic ability, and a high football IQ.
It would’ve been easy for Fleck to add from the portal, to go all-in on a transfer who had big numbers as an FBS starter instead of trusting what he saw in Kaliakmanis from the moment he began recruiting him more than 3 years ago.
He has a prototype quarterback frame (6-4, 210 pounds), a live arm, and his ability to run a true run-pass option offense changed how the game was called — even with Kaliakmanis’ limited experience and comfort with the offense — over the last 6 weeks of the season.
Kaliakmanis got his first start at Penn State after Tanner Morgan sustained an upper body injury against Illinois. It was a 28-point loss, but he didn’t play that poorly.
Two weeks later at Nebraska, Morgan, having returned the previous week in a 31-0 win over Rutgers, was dinged again, this time leaving with the Gophers trailing by 10 points in the second half. Kaliakmanis led Minnesota to a come-from-behind road win, then played well as the starter the next week in a rout of Northwestern.
The staff then made the decision to focus on the run game against Iowa’s stout defense, and tried to protect Kaliakmanis from Iowa’s pass rush. The questionable decision in a 13-10 loss was rectified a week later against bitter rival Wisconsin.
Kaliakmanis went from completing 7-of-15 passes for 87 yards and 1 INT against Iowa to completing 19-of-29 for 319 yards and 2 TDs with 0 INTs against the Badgers in the season final. A month later against Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl, Kaliakmanis completed 7 of his first 9 passes — 6 of those completions for first downs — before injuring his ankle and missing the rest of the game.
Morgan was healthy and cleared to play against Syracuse, and finished the game. But that’s not the story.
This is: Fleck chose a freshman (Kaliakmanis) over his 6th year super senior quarterback (Morgan) — who started for Fleck since 2018 — because it was clear where the program was headed. And who was taking it there.
Do you really think Fleck was going to add a transfer portal quarterback this offseason to cloud the inevitable?
2. Change was imminent
Kaliakmanis was different from the moment he stepped on campus 2 years ago, the 1st blue-chip quarterback recruit landed by Fleck.
There has never been a question about the most talented quarterback on the roster. It was obvious with every throw, and every off-schedule throw or run.
But Morgan knew the system, knew line checks and had seen every defense, and all those critical nuances were second nature. When he walked to the line of scrimmage and saw pre-snap that the Gophers were in a bad play, he knew how to get them out of it and into something that could work.
Those intangibles are critical — and Kaliakmanis just wasn’t at that level of consumption of the offense.
“At first it was about giving him what he could handle, not giving him too much, too soon, ” Fleck said. “There were times when we thought, ‘we can’t give that to him because he’s not ready for that piece yet.’ ”
Then Morgan got hurt, and Kaliakmanis was forced to play — and like most elite players forced into action, Kaliakmanis embraced the spotlight.
Now he’s the projected starter from the start of the offseason. He’ll run offseason workouts, and he’ll get 1st team reps in 15 spring practices. He’ll work all summer with receivers, and enter the 4 weeks of fall camp as the unquestioned leader of the offense.
It’s his team, his time. Minnesota, everyone, has a blue-chip quarterback.
3. The different QB, The Epilogue
Fleck didn’t add a quarterback from the portal this offseason, but he did everything he could to make it easier this fall for Kaliakmanis.
He added receivers Elijah Spencer (Charlotte) and Corey Crooms (Western Michigan), and running back Sean Spencer (Western Michigan) from the transfer portal — 3 players who combined to catch 126 passes for 1,868 yards and 15 TDs, and also rush for 1,027 yards and 7 TDs.
He elevated Greg Harbaugh Jr. and Matt Simon from the staff to bigger roles in the offense: The co-coordinators will coach quarterbacks (Harbaugh) and call plays (Simon). Same system, same coaches, smooth transition.
The play of Kaliakmanis over the last month of the season dictated it, and the potential of the 2023 season demanded it. It was an easy decision after watching Kaliakmanis pull 2 run options on RPO plays, and throw 2 touchdown passes into tight windows against Wisconsin.
Or throw 6 completions for first downs in less than 2 quarters of play against Syracuse. This is the future for Minnesota.
It might just translate to the Gophers’ first Big Ten West title.
4. Setting up competition
Ohio State will take a week off for spring break and return next week for what will be 10 critical practices in the quarterback competition between Kyle McCord and Devin Brown.
Both players looked sharp in Week 1 of non-competition drills. Or as one staffer told Saturday Tradition last weekend, “no surprises.”
The only oddity was Brown’s decision to change to jersey No.33, in honor, he said, of former college and NFL legend Sammy Baugh.
Individual drills move next week to 7-on-7 and team drills, where both McCord and Brown will be stressed. There will likely be live team drills, too.
5. The Weekly 5
Iowa’s win total and 5 games that can affect the odds:
1. Sept. 9, at Iowa State: Cyclones won in the series in 2022 for the first time since 2014, and historically play better in the series in Ames than at Iowa City.
2. Sept. 23, at Penn State: A tough spot for an offense that will still be finding itself, against one of the most athletic defenses in the nation.
3. Oct. 7, Purdue: Boilermakers have won 4 of the last 6, including 2 of the last 3 in Iowa City.
4. Oct. 14, at Wisconsin: A big test for Phil Parker’s defense: the new Air Raid offense and QB Tanner Mordecai.
5. Oct. 21, Minnesota: Gophers haven’t won in the series since 2014, and haven’t won at Iowa City since 1999. But haven’t had a QB like Kaliakmanis.
6. Your tape is your resume
An NFL scout analyzes a draft eligible Big Ten player. This week: Michigan C Olu Oluwatimi.
“I liked him at Virginia, and liked him more at Michigan. He’s 6-2ish, which isn’t short, but it’s not ideal. He’s strong enough, and really athletic. It may take 2 years for him to get stronger and fill out his frame, but I can see him as a swing guy playing both center and guard.”
7. Powered Up
This week’s Power Poll, and 1 big thing: in the spirt of the NCAA Tournament, ranking the best football/basketball coaching tandems:
1. Ohio State: Ryan Day/Chris Holtmann: Day is elite; Holtmann is, too — despite his first non-NCAAs season in 9 years at Ohio State.
2. Michigan: Jim Harbaugh/Juwan Howard: Howard’s resume: Elite Eight, Sweet 16, and underachieving in 2022-23. Or the reverse of Harbaugh.
3. Michigan State: Mel Tucker/Tom Izzo: Tucker’s Peach Bowl win in 2021 will only last so long — and not nearly as long as Izzo’s 25 straight NCAA Tournament appearances (and 6 Final Fours).
4. Northwestern: Pat Fitzgerald/Chris Collins: Despite the inherent disadvantages, Fitzgerald and Collins win (and sometimes win big).
5. Illinois: Bret Bielema/Brad Underwood: Underwood has reached NCAAs in 7 of 9 non-Covid seasons as a Division I coach, and Bielema’s work at Wisconsin and Illinois is impressive.
6. Wisconsin: Luke Fickell/Greg Gard: Fickell is among the top 20 coaches in college football; Gard hasn’t reached the Sweet 16 (the standard for Wisconsin) since 2017.
7. Iowa: Kirk Ferentz/Fran McCaffery: Solid, steady — but nothing rare or unique. Ferentz and McCaffery are the same coach.
8. Penn State: James Franklin/Micah Shrewsberry: Franklin is at Playoff doorstep, Shrewsberry led Penn State to its 12th 20-win season in 127 years of basketball.
9. Nebraska: Matt Rhule/Fred Hoiberg: This could/should be the best combination in the Big Ten. But Rhule is in Year 1, and Hoiberg — after a sterling tenure at Iowa State (and a brief stop in the NBA) — has whiffed in 4 years at Nebraska.
10. Maryland: Mike Locksley/Kevin Willard: Locksley is slowly turning the corner. Willard’s success at Seton Hall (5 NCAAs in 6 non-Covid seasons) translated to Maryland in Year 1.
11. Purdue: Ryan Walters/Matt Painter: It’s time for the best coach in the Big Ten to reach the Final Four, and Walters’ recruiting could change the narrative for football Boilers.
12. Minnesota: P.J. Fleck/Ben Johnson: Gophers thought they had the basketball version of Fleck with Johnson. They don’t — at least, not yet.
13. Rutgers: Greg Schiano/Steve Pikiell: Schiano still building the 2nd iteration at Rutgers, and Pikiell missed the NCAAs for first time since 2019.
14. Indiana: Tom Allen/Mike Woodson: Woodson was a longtime NBA coach, and has made the turn at Indiana. Allen needs to recapture magic of 2020.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I feel Michigan reached the ceiling, and won’t recover from the embarrassing loss to TCU. Why are you so bullish on Michigan? — Thomas Desen, Cincinnati.
It started with QB JJ McCarthy, but more than that, Harbaugh has built this Michigan program in the mold of SEC teams — for the specific reason of beating SEC teams (and Ohio State) in the games that matter. They’re physical at the lines of scrimmage, and dynamic at the skill positions.
Defensively, they’re disruptive on the defensive line and can man cover in the secondary. That’s the framework of an elite SEC program. But for some unthinkable mistakes (2 pick-6s) and offensive play calling, Michigan would’ve made the next step to the national title game.
We can say “if” all day long, and until Michigan makes the move of playing for and winning the national title, it’s all speculation. But I like how Harbaugh has built the program in the image of the SEC elite. He has the QB, he has the defensive line (the 2 critical components).
Now Michigan only needs 1 big win to get it over the Playoff obstacle — just like the 1 big win over Ohio State got it over the Big Ten obstacle.
33. New Illinois DC Aaron Henry gets his first opportunity to run a defense, and will do so by focusing on what has made Illinois so strong in 2 years under coach Bret Bielema: turnovers.
Specifically, interceptions. Illinois has 48 forced turnovers over the last 2 seasons, including 33 interceptions with Henry as its secondary coach. Illinois will begin this spring by rebuilding a secondary hit hard by graduation and early entry into the NFL draft.
10. Quote to note
Penn State coach James Franklin: “I’m looking for us to develop and recruit a (wide receiver) room that people in our conference are fearful of, and also on a national scale as well.”