The Gophers football team highs in 2022 will likely hinge on their ability to replace starts along the offensive and defensive lines.
At Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis, Fleck had a number handy: 181, the number of starts lost along the O line from last season. It’s the total of four pillars: Daniel Faalele, Blaise Andries, Sam Schlueter and Conner Olson.
After Saturday’s first open practice of fall camp, some clarity emerged on how they will replace them going forward. Obviously, returning starting center John Michael Schmitz, a preseason All-America winner, anchors the group.
Left tackle Aireontae Ersery, who head coach PJ Fleck said has an edge in the NFL, is the closest newcomer to having his name penned on the depth chart. Axel Ruschmeyer and Michigan transfer Chuck Filiaga can be penciled in on guard points.
There is a blank left at the right tackle. Martes Lewis and Notre Dame transfer Quinn Carroll rotated there on Saturday, with JJ Guedet sitting out the three-man competition after undergoing surgery for an unspecified injury. Fleck said a few weeks ago that Guedet would be restricted at the start of camp.
On the defensive side, Minnesota has lost six of the best players, by the 2021 instant count, for this season. Those starts start with NFL second-round pick Boye Mafe.
This D-Line depth chart, outside of Thomas Rush and tackle Trill Carter, is more of a carousel.
“We’re deeper on the D-Line than we’ve ever been,” Fleck said Saturday. “Instead of having eight guys, we could have 11 guys (in the rotation). It’s going to be hard to say it’s just the starters. … We’re going to have a lot of guys starting.
The Gophers made three transfers: Lorenza Surgers (Vanderbilt), Darnell Jefferies (Clemson) and Kyler Bush (Houston Baptist). Jefferies was the quietest of the three newcomers on Saturday.
The Gophers have been emphasizing D-Line additions in recent recruiting classes, and that could lead to more toss-ups on the depth chart. They could only be split by an “or” between the nouns.
“Not OARS,” Fleck said, referring to the Row the Boat mantra.
TIME FOR TERELL
Gophers fifth-year cornerback Terell Smith had a handful of pass breakups in Saturday practice and often covered for the U’s top receiver, Chris Autman-Bell.
“T-Time is probably the best player he’s been since he’s been here,” Autman-Bell said. “Playing against him every day, I love it. It’s competition. It makes me better every day. It’s a huge corner, almost 6-(foot)-1, 6-2 and super physical.
Smith played 11 games as a true freshman in 2018, but has only played 13 games in the past three years combined. He had more chances on Saturday with trade cornerback Beanie Bishop not participating in team drills.
One of Smith’s batted balls drew a shout of “yeah!” of Fleck.
Outside of right tackle, the linebacker spot next to Mariano Sori-Marin is fall camp’s richest competition. During Saturday’s session, Cody Lindenberg made the biggest splash play.
During a live segment, the U set up a third-and-two situation, and Lindenberg stuffed running back Jordan Nubin short on a first down. Braelen Oliver and Josh Aune are Lindenberg’s main competitors, Fleck said.
Receiver Daniel Jackson did not practice Saturday. “The medical team decided to keep him in the locker room (Saturday),” Fleck said. “He trained (Friday).” … Fans donated more than 9,000 diapers and wipes for families in need for the program’s annual collection during fall camp. … Offensive linemen Cameron James, Tyrell Lawrence and defensive lineman Trey Bixby were also absent from Saturday practice. … The Gophers had their first full practice on Saturday; they reported to camp on Monday. The U will go from one to two preseason scrimmages during camp. .. U to open Thursday practice to fans; it will begin at 7:45 p.m. at Huntington Bank Stadium. … Redshirt freshman Quentin Redding looks like the leading punt returner at this point in the preseason.