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Gophers’ youth means mismatches along offensive line

October 6, 2018

The statistic gets repeated so often that it clings to the Gophers football team like a bumper sticker.

Fifty-nine players on the roster are freshmen, making the Gophers one of the youngest teams in college football. Maybe youve heard P.J. Fleck share this nugget once or a million times.

At some point Saturday, the offense will line up against Iowa with a freshman quarterback, freshman running back and three freshmen wide receivers on the field together. They should call this their diaper formation.

Youth at quarterback is never desirable. Youth at skill positions can be mitigated by talent. Youth in the trenches is often humbling.

The Gophers pups experienced that lesson in their Big Ten opener at Maryland two weeks ago. That one-sided contest could be boiled down to one unmistakable fact: Maryland held a clear advantage in brute strength.

Im glad you see that, Fleck said. Thats reality. Ill never lie to anybody. This is the reality of where were at.

That admission serves as neither an insult nor criticism. And it doesnt mean the Gophers cant win in the Big Ten right now. But it is a challenge that shouldnt be dismissed when explaining the difficulty of relying on so many young players in a power conference.

The analogy [is] its like having 14 to 15 NFL rookies playing at one time, Fleck said. Youd look at the GM and owner and be like, What are you doing? Are you serious right now?

As coaches, weve got to be very creative on how we can manipulate points, create points, get points on the board, and obviously stop them on defense.

The process is similar for any coach attempting to rebuild a program through a youth movement. Coaches can recruit speed and better athletes, but players have to build strength and that simply takes time.

Fleck describes it as grown-man strength. He believes only one of his underclassmen has true grown-man strength freshman tackle Daniel Faalele, who probably will redshirt this season.

A young receiver with speed and talent can hold his own against a veteran cornerback. A young lineman faces the likelihood of being overmatched physically against a veteran who has spent three or four years in a strength and conditioning program. On rare occasion is an 18-year-old college football player comparable physically to a 22-year-old.

Incoming Gophers recruits need several offseason cycles in strength coach Dan Nichols program in order to grow in size and muscle. Not just linemen, but every position.

These are kids who have not been in our program more than one year, and some only been here three months, Fleck said. To sit there and say theyre a grown man now, thats silly. Its going to take a while to get that strength to where it needs to be.

College strength programs are intensive, particularly for positions that require bulk. Its not uncommon for a lineman to gain as much as 75 pounds during his physical transformation.

One example: Former Gophers defensive tackle Andrew Stelter arrived on campus weighing 240 pounds. His weight jumped to 288 by his junior season.

He transformed his body by being devoted to the weight room and consuming 7,000 calories per day for an entire year. He needed 250 grams of protein daily. The path to grown-man strength is a steady climb, not a snap of the finger.

The Gophers dont have the luxury of using redshirts freely or allowing young players to watch and learn behind veterans. They got pushed around by Maryland, especially along the offensive line, which allowed constant pressure on quarterback Zack Annexstad. He never looked comfortable.

Things wont get easier Saturday. The Hawkeyes have fielded one of college footballs stingiest defenses through four games.

Were not strong enough yet, but thats life, Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. Nobody cares. Weve got a job to do and weve got to go out and perform.

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com

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