How Minnesota is trying to turn in another storybook season during a nightmare year
MINNEAPOLIS — Even in a pandemic, P.J. Fleck finds a way to deploy his gimmicks.
Bubble machines throughout the Minnesota football facility to remind his players to keep their “synthetic bubble” during COVID-19. Flipping the 2020 mantra “new normal” and ingraining “the new next” in his players’ craniums.
And the reading of Robert Southey’s children’s literary classic “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” to his team during the infancy of a delayed fall camp.
“What we do has got to be just right for our football team,” Fleck said less than three weeks ahead of his 4th season as the Golden Gophers’ head coach — one unlike any he’s faced in 39 years on this earth and, God willing, never will again. “It doesn’t matter what somebody else is doing; what matters is what’s best for our football team, our players, our situation, our youth, our experience, our depth.”
The melding of those factors amid attempts to play major college football during a global health crisis means you could pick any number of kids’ stories to personify 2020. Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are.” “Charlotte’s Web” of Big Ten coronavirus protocols.
Folks here just hope it doesn’t end up being “Good Night Moon.”
The season that was, then wasn’t, then was again seems in some ways to hang by a thread before it even begins. Test positive for COVID-19, and a player is out for a third of the season. Have a handful of plus signs come up on the conference’s rapid tests, and an entire team is sidelined.
From their president to their players, the Gophers weren’t all that vocal when the B1G decided in early August to cancel fall football. They certainly didn’t lead the charge for its eventual reinstatement.
In an NFL city inside a hockey state with a franchise in every major professional sports league, it’s easy for outsiders to cast Minnesota as relatively apathetic. Fleck and his players, though, would detest that term if you said it to them.
“It’s definitely a blessing,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “And it helps us to be able to understand like, hey, nothing’s given; this is a privilege. What we’re able to do, play collegiate football in the B1G, is a privilege.”
What will they do with that privilege coming off the program’s best season since the early 20th century?
There is more than one antagonist in this tale.
Technically, Minnesota’s schedule begins in historic fashion — with the Little Brown Jug battle on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. After that, Michigan, Maryland, Illinois, Iowa, Purdue, Wisconsin, Northwestern and Nebraska stand between the Gophers and their first B1G Championship Game berth since the conference moved to divisions in 2011. They haven’t won a conference title since 1967 but came within a win against border rival Wisconsin of playing for one last season.
Three Friday night games will give this “Little Engine That Could” program — which upended Penn State and Auburn last season — plenty of national exposure. You can bet Fleck and Athletic Director Mark Coyle raised their hands when the league announced it would be scheduling Friday contests.
But Game No. 10 — or No. 1, depending on semantics — began in the spring. The toughest opponent this fall is microscopic, rapidly spread and continues to befuddle the nation’s top health experts.
Like every other FBS team trying to give it a go this fall, Minnesota is operating under strict rules. It has been since voluntary workouts were allowed during the summer, but the pressure is up to 11 now that the B1G has handed down its statutes.
The Gophers don’t release team-specific COVID-19 results, but it became apparent throughout the offseason the team had been affected. Perhaps its best player, Rashod Bateman, opted out after a bout with the virus that has killed more than 210,000 in the U.S. before choosing to return after the B1G reversed course.
“It was strictly health,” said Bateman, who contracted the virus during voluntary summer workouts. “With the new testing and daily testing protocols, I definitely feel safer being around our facility and being around my teammates and just being a football player here at the University of Minnesota.”
In a matter of months, head athletic trainer Mike Sypniak and his staff have had to become their best version of infectious disease experts. They and the team’s operations group have overseen the administering of regular tests — today, they’re provided via the B1G from a medical-device corporation called Quidel. Biodesix and a contractor for that company come in every day to perform those tests.
Dr. Brad Nelson, an orthopedic surgeon for sports medicine and the university’s athletic medical director, has played an instrumental leadership role in keeping Athletes Village as sterile as possible, too.
The Gophers’ medical and training staff typically doesn’t speak to media. But Fleck has been quick to credit them with giving Minnesota so much as a shot at pulling off a football season.
“Our trainers have worked day and night, overtime, put a lot of their health at risk to help our student-athletes,” Fleck said. “They deserve a lot of credit.
“These are what a lot of times people didn’t sign up for, but everybody’s willing to help.”
When a player does test positive, he’s immediately confined to his home or dorm room for the mandatory 14 days. Food is dropped off, and coaches and players make an effort to stay in touch till the athlete is allowed out of quarantine.
The hope is those situations will remain at a minimum.
According to data from Johns Hopkins University, Minnesota’s case load has remained relatively flat since mid-July. About 113,439 people have contracted the virus, and 2,197 have died.
Fleck said the uncertainty means some players on his team may still opt out. No. 3 wideout Demetrius Douglas already has.
“The Bank” will be empty save for possibly friends and family during home games as fall turns to winter in the Twin Cities.
One thing is clear: fans, coaches, media, families, friends and the players themselves are going to find out just how much these dudes care about football. Try as administrators might, student gatherings aren’t going to magically dissipate until a vaccine is released. Temptations to break stride will abound.
Get the virus, and you aren’t just putting yourself at risk. You could jeopardize an entire season.
How’s that for peer accountability?
“There’s sacrifices we’re all gonna have to make to be able to be successful this fall, and we know how severe COVID-19 can be,” Morgan said. “And, you know, 21 days is a long time. If you test positive, that’s three weeks. So each and every player knows what’s at stake. And we know we have to treat each each day like — you know, we have to be careful.”
A hero’s return
Over the course of two months, Bateman went from contracting the virus to preparing for the NFL draft to pursuing a waiver from the NCAA to play to seeing his eligibility restored.
“It was a tough time, and I made it out,” said Bateman, the reigning B1G receiver of the year. “I’m the happiest I’ve been since all this stuff has been going on.”
That stuff included the police killing of George Floyd and the riots, looting and unrest that ensued within miles of campus this summer. It’s why Bateman will wear No. 0 this season, to prove that “there is zero tolerance for racism,” and there is zero doubt about what Minnesota football stands for, he says.
Regardless of today’s divided political climate, don’t doubt the impact being so close to the epicenter of the U.S.’s latest social unrest has had on Bateman and his teammates.
On the field, his return completely changes the complexion of the Gophers’ offense. Bateman is good enough to have an even better season than he did as a sophomore, and at the very least he’ll open opportunities for No. 2 wideout Chris Autman-Bell, tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford and other skill players.
“Rashod Bateman changes a lot of things,” Fleck said. “Maybe not so much for our offense, but it changes things for opposing defenses. Having him in there is critical. … They’ve either got to put more people in the box to stop the run or put another person over him to take him out of the box to stop him in the pass game.”
Morgan had FBS’s fourth-best passer rating and was one of the country’s most consistent quarterbacks in 2019. He’ll drop back behind one of the sport’s biggest and most experienced offensive lines, depending on what happens with a couple members’ playing status.
And Mohamed Ibrahim is back and expected to shoulder the lion’s share of co-offensive coordinators Mike Sanford Jr. and Matt Simon’s zone running attack. Ibrahim ran for 1,160 yards as a freshman before sharing carries with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, both graduated, last season.
“We just happy that we got a schedule and we got something to look forward to,” Ibrahim said. “But we still have to prepare every day.”
Five FBS programs offered starting middle linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin an athletic scholarship: Brown, Colgate, Cornell, Harvard and Minnesota.
Ask anyone around the program and they’ll probably tell you the 2019-20 Big Ten Distinguished Scholar is the smartest cat on the team. “Not only that” Fleck said, “I would probably rank him in the top 3 of who loves football the most.”
Sori-Marin is one of just 4 returning starters for a defense that finished No. 10 in the FBS last season. Safety Antoine Winfield Jr., cornerback Chris Williamson, defensive end Carter Coughlin and linebacker Kamal Martin were all drafted.
This is where Fleck and defensive coordinator Joe Rossi’s ability to develop players will be tested. Success in that department is the only way Minnesota will have a chance to keep pace with Wisconsin, Iowa or possibly a surprise contender in the B1G West.
With the Hawkeyes losing players to the NFL and the Badgers breaking in a new quarterback in Graham Mertz while Jack Coan recovers from foot surgery, it looks like a wide-open race similar to last year’s.
“We might be younger, but I think we’re deeper,” Fleck said. “You see a potential up to a certain point, because the person in front of you’s playing all the time, well, sometimes that player’s got to be able to move on for you to be able to really kind of take the top off the jar, and for the grasshopper to jump out of the jar and go to places they’ve never gone before.
“And I can see that with our defense.”
The front seven is particularly thin, but the secondary’s the opposite with safety Jordan Howden and cornerbacks Coney Durr and Benjamin St-Juste all back. Defensive linemen Esezi Otomewo, Micah Dew-Treadway and Boye Mafe all have the potential for breakout seasons.
Sori-Marin predicts some surprises this fall.
“Every single position, there’s studs on this defense,” he said. “I think the fans are going to be really, really excited about a lot of guys on this team.
“We’re excited to get after it.”
Fleck has kept a close eye on the SEC, ACC and Big 12 games that will have been going on for over a month by the time the B1G kicks off.
“I think the one thing that’s stood out is football in 2020 is going to be really different than what people have seen at times,” Fleck said. “It’s not any less real than it’s ever been. It’s real, and it counts.”
Some Power 5 teams — including juggernaut Alabama — have struggled tackling. Others have had a hard time hanging on to the ball.
What will a COVID-sidetracked season bring? Players with no experience playing key roles? Games getting moved like we’ve seen in the NFL?
The fallout will go beyond 2020. With players granted an extra year of eligibility by the NCAA, Minnesota will have a roster logjam to deal with for the next several years.
In some ways, just getting a crack at this thing is gravy. Especially considering this team was practicing with no real purpose in mind a little more than a month ago.
Just don’t tell Fleck or his bought-in bunch this isn’t a fairytale worth exploring.
“It’s different,” Fleck said, “but it’s very real. And I think that’s what makes it really exciting.”