Scoggins: This Gophers football team is old — and that's good

Chip Scoggins, Star Tribune
·4 min read

P.J. Fleck loves acronyms. He uses them as motivational slogans or to shrink specific themes for each Gophers football season into catchy phrases.

He's already picked one for the 2021 season — TGIF (togetherness, gratitude, identity, focus) — which is clever, but I'd like to submit a different acronym that also applies.

AARP.

His team is old.

That's a compliment in this case.

No more "race to maturity" as a guiding principle. Fleck might never coach another college football team with as much experience as the one that is about to wrap up spring practice.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan turned 22 on Saturday. He's a young'un on offense.

"22 going on 35," Morgan joked.

No worries, he'll fit right in.

In 2018, the Gophers proclaimed themselves the youngest team in college football.

In 2020, they might have been the most disrupted team. A COVID-19 outbreak resulted in 49 positive cases inside the program, games being canceled, coaches and players forced to quarantine and a win at Nebraska despite missing 33 players.

In 2021, Fleck will field a team stocked with players who — using Morgan's own words — "have been through some dirty water."

Take the offensive line, for example. The projected starting unit will feature two players in their sixth season of college football, two in their fifth and one "true" senior.

Tight end Bryce Witham is entering his seventh season in the program. I could be wrong, but I believe he was recruited by Smokey Joe Salem.

Defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway is another locker room veteran, approaching his third season, which is astounding when you consider he spent four years at Notre Dame before joining Fleck's program. This will be his seventh college season, too.

So how does this all happen?

Timing, planning and the pandemic.

Any youth movement like the one Fleck put to practice is done with the calculation of having a veteran roster eventually. Then the pandemic took things to a whole other level.

The NCAA gave all athletes a do-over on 2020, which meant seniors could return for another season. The Gophers lost only two starters, pending NFL draft picks Rashod Bateman and Benjamin St-Juste. Any senior who wished to play another season was welcomed back.

The Gophers likewise added a handful of transfers from other college programs. Those who hadn't already graduated will be eligible immediately after the NCAA passed the one-time transfer rule this past week.

The NCAA's eligibility waiver makes it permissible for football teams to exceed the 85-scholarship limit. Athletic director Mark Coyle allowed Fleck to invite back his seniors, which puts the roster around 95 players in spring practice. Typically, that number is 60 to 65.

"There's a lot of bodies out there," Fleck said. "Which is good."

This spring practice is unlike any that I've witnessed from the Gophers program, both in terms of experience and depth, especially in two critical position groups — offensive and defensive lines.

Age matters in the trenches in college football. The difference between being 19 years old and 22 at those positions cannot be minimized because bodies change significantly as a lineman's career progresses.

Fleck has legitimate depth in both position groups now. A few guys who started games last season likely will begin this season as backups, which, again, is a positive.

"Depth changes a lot of things," Fleck said.

The offense could start a line that has combined for 140 career starts. The return of massive tackle Daniel Faalele and guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. changes the dynamic.

The defensive line has far more depth than last season, especially at tackle, aided by a pair of transfers — Nyles Pinckney (Clemson) and Val Martin (N.C. State) — who will either start or be in the rotation right away.

The defense also added linebacker transfer Jack Gibbens, who played four seasons at Abilene Christian, and Fleck didn't rule out bringing in another transfer in the secondary this summer. So the roster might become even older and more experienced before the season kicks off.

Some of this happened by circumstance, and some by design. This is an unusual situation, to have this many veterans and nearly 100 scholarship players. To not take full advantage would be a wasted opportunity.