Critical offseason ahead for Fleck and Golden Gophers
By David Shama
David Shama’s Minnesota Sports Headliners
The Golden Gophers 2023 football team lacked talent and quality depth at too many positions. The result was a 5-7 overall record and 3-6 mark in the Big Ten that left them in a four-way tie for last place in the West Division.
Now coach P.J. Fleck and his staff face the challenge of upgrading the personnel and depth as the Big Ten transitions in 2024 to 18 football teams with no divisional play. And in the new world of college football Minnesota and other Power Five programs will try to figure out how to retain players and add players in the transfer portal who can contribute next fall while stockpiling incoming freshmen for development. The portal is open most immediately from December 4 through January 3, 2024.
The Gophers had experienced players at many positions, but they didn’t play consistent football. When things mattered the most–late in the season–they lost four consecutive games including Saturday’s finale with Wisconsin. A run of key injuries was problematic all season.
Minnesota could return most of its offensive and defensive starters, and special team regulars in 2024. The most significant losses are defensive tackle Kyler Baugh, center Nathan Boe, receiver Corey Crooms Jr., corner Tre’Von Jones, safety Tyler Nubin and tight end Brevyn-Spann Ford.
The best college teams excel at quarterback and along the line of scrimmage, offensively and defensively. QB Athan Kaliakmanis started all 12 games and was up and down in performance. Not only was his passing inconsistent but he made minimal plays with his legs. The offensive line blocking couldn’t match the performance of three recent seasons when Minnesota won nine games or more. Defensively, too often Minnesota’s line and linebackers were gashed with big runs, and the old nemesis of a poor pass rush continued.
Typically, Power Five teams lose a dozen or more players to the portal. Who those players will be on the Minnesota roster will be known over the next 30 days or so.
Where do the Gophers need help in the transfer portal? “Pick your position,” Ryan Burns said.
Burns, the local recruiting authority from GopherIllustrated, listed quarterback, receiver, running back and offensive and defensive lines as areas of need. If pressed for his top three he prioritizes corner, tailback and “probably quarterback.”
Burns predicts Fleck and his staff will prioritize Name, Image and Likeness money for players already on the roster. Retaining talents like RB Darius Taylor, offensive tackle Aireontae Ersery and end defensive Jah Joyner will be vital for next year’s team.
Burns said creating competition for Kaliakmanis is desirable but the Gophers are likely to find such a QB from the FCS or Group of Five level. Why? Because big name Power Five quarterbacks can command $250,000 and more in the portal.
Fleck, who has a 49-34 record at Minnesota and is fifth all-time in wins, starts his eighth season in 2024. He will have to sort out issues with the program including possible changes needed in coaching philosophy and schemes, and perhaps shaking up the staff.
Burns and others predict this offseason will be different. “Most critical one Fleck’s had, I would say,” Burns said. “It didn’t go their way this year–the breaks they probably weren’t anticipating, but still should have won two games, Illinois and Northwestern, and sitting at six or seven wins going into the Wisconsin game.
“If that’s the case I don’t know that there is as much fan reaction as there has been this season. …Being able to look short term and long term at the same time is going to be critical for him trying to figure out what the best thing is to adapt going into that 2024 new Big Ten world.”
I am so sorry to write that my friend Jim Carter, the captain of the 1969 football Gophers, passed away on Thanksgiving evening in Palm Springs, California. I knew Jim for more than 50 years and he was a fiery competitor in sports, business and life. He was a loyal friend who cared deeply for the University of Minnesota where he also played hockey.
A great prep football player at South St. Paul High School, Jim could have opted for Notre Dame but instead chose the hometown Gophers. He was a star player and important contributor as the fullback on the 1967 Minnesota Big Ten championship team. The Green Bay Packers made a linebacker out of him and his NFL career lasted through the 1978 season.
Known to friends as “Hurricane,” Jim was challenged much of his life by emotions and addictions. He had been in recovery for about 20 years and devoted a lot of his free time to helping others with their addictions.
Jim passed away at age 75 after battling metastatic melanoma. Longtime friend, confidant and Gopher teammate Jim Brunzell wrote via email how he will miss their lunches, football get togethers and phone calls.
“Jimmy was a man’s man and called his life accordingly,” Brunzell wrote. “…May he rest in peace, ’till we hug again.”
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— David Shama, a Minneapolis native, is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers.