The time to judge P.J. Fleck the football coach begins now

September 21, 2018

The 2017 Gophers football team won its three nonconference games by a combined 75 points. The 2018 Gophers won their three nonconference games by a combined 78 points.

The 2017 Gophers began their Big Ten schedule with a loss at home to Maryland, the first negative indicator of what would become an embarrassing season: a 2-7 conference record with many of the players who had gone 5-4 in the conference and won a bowl game the year before.

The 2018 Gophers begin their Big Ten schedule at Maryland, in what coach P.J. Fleck is calling Year 1 of his program. Thats because he decided his false-start first season should be renamed Year 0.

Using Flecks time-space continuum, todays game at Maryland should be considered Game 1 of his program. This is where Fleck should begin proving himself.

People close to the program said Flecks problem last year was that his message was bound to offend his veteran players. He is selling what he calls a new culture. The 22-year-olds who had just won a bowl game and felt loyal to Tracy Claeys were not going to be appreciative of the sentiment, but Flecks message seems to be working on younger Gophers.

This is a good time to begin judging Flecks ability to compete in the Big Ten, because he will not be able to use conference quality as an excuse if this years team regresses.

Last weekend, seven Big Ten teams lost to unranked nonconference opponents. That had never happened before. Maryland, which had beaten Texas and Bowling Green, somehow lost to Temple by 21 points, while providing a reminder that Temple fields a football team.

Flecks salesmanship is perfectly designed to woo teenagers and offend adults who have been asked to believe in Gophers coaches ever since Lou Holtz promised to spend the rest of his life in Dinkytown.

At his news conference on Tuesday, Fleck spoke of culture, and his teams impressive grades, and building a program from scratch, even if the program won nine games the year before he arrived.

Hes easy to satirize, but there is this:

Flecks freshman are impressive. Zach Annexstad is a true freshman walk-on quarterback who can run an offense with poise. Freshman running back Bryce Williams is a player, as is the freshman with whom hell probably share time, Mohamed Ibraham. Freshman receiver Rashod Bateman is an athletic complement to Tyler Johnson, the star from Minneapolis North High.

Fleck is starting six freshmen, and they are playing on merit. Perhaps more impressive is that he has salvaged relationships with two talented sophomores who could have transferred.

Seth Green lost the quarterback competition to two freshmen. Instead of transferring, he stuck around and now is a dynamic Wildcat quarterback.

Cornerback Antoine Winfield, Jr., was rightly offended by the lack of due process when the University of Minnesota accused players of sexual assault in 2016. Fleck kept Winfield in the program and now has one of the countrys best players winning games for him.

Winfields father was one of the most impressive Vikings Ive covered in 28 years, but even he couldnt run over a half-dozen opponents on a punt return, like his son.

However Flecks shtick is received by a public made skeptical by the last 50 years of Gopher football, what matters now is how he connects with talented kids.

Whether this is Year 0, 1, 2 or Pi, Fleck appears to be winning friends and influencing people within an important demographic: Athletic, football-loving 18-year-olds.

Jim Souhans podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. jsouhan@startribune.com

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