The heights of the Gophers football team in 2022 will likely ride on how well they are able to replace departures along the offensive and defensive lines.
At Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis, Fleck had a number at the ready: 181, the number of starts lost along the O-line from last season. That’s the total from four mainstays: Daniel Faalele, Blaise Andries, Sam Schlueter and Conner Olson.
After Saturday’s first open practice of fall camp, some clarity was apparent in how they will replace them going forward. Obviously, returning starting center John Michael Schmitz, a preseason All-America honoree, anchors the group.
Left tackle Aireontae Ersery, whom head coach PJ Fleck said has NFL upside, is the newcomer closest to having his name written in pen on the depth chart. Axel Ruschmeyer and Michigan transfer Chuck Filiaga can be written in pencil at the guard spots.
There remains a blank at right tackle. Martes Lewis and Notre Dame transfer Quinn Carroll rotated at that spot Saturday, with JJ Guedet not participating in the three-man competition after having surgery on an unspecified injury. Fleck said weeks ago Guedet would be limited at the start of camp.
On the defensive side, Minnesota lost six of the top players, according to 2021 snap counts, for this season. Those departures start with second-round NFL draft pick Boye Mafe.
That D-Line depth chart, outside of incumbent starting end Thomas Rush and tackle Trill Carter, is more of a carousel.
“We are deeper on the D-Line than we’ve ever been,” Fleck said Saturday. “Instead of having eight guys, we might have 11 guys (in the rotation). It’s going to be hard to say these are just the starters. … We are going to have a lot of guys that start.
The Gophers brought in 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 emphasized D-Line additions in recent recruiting classes, and it could lead to more toss-ups on the depth chart. They could be divided only by an “or” between names.
“Not OARS,” Fleck said, referencing the Row the Boat mantra.
HOURS FOR TERELL
Gopher’s fifth-year cornerback Terell Smith had a handful of pass breakups in Saturday’s practice and was often covering the U’s best wideout, Chris Autman-Bell.
“T-Time is probably the best player he has been since he’s been here,” Autman-Bell said. “Playing against him every day, I love it. It’s competition. It gets me better every day. He’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 played in only 13 games in the last three years combined. He got more of an opportunity Saturday with transfer cornerback Beanie Bishop not participating in team drills.
One of Smith’s batted balls drew a shout of “yeah!” pious Fleck.
Outside of right tackle, the linebacker spot next to Mariano Sori-Marin is the richest competition in fall camp. 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 of a first down. Braelen Oliver and Josh Aune are Lindenberg’s primary competition, Fleck has said.
Receiver Daniel Jackson did not practice Saturday. “The medical team decided to keep him in the locker room (Saturday),” Fleck said. “He practiced (Friday).” … Fans donated more than 9,000 diapers and wipes for families in need for the program’s annual drive during fall camp. … Offensive linemen Cameron James, Tyrell Lawrence and defensive lineman Trey Bixby were also out of Saturday’s practice. … The Gophers had their first full-pad practice Saturday; they reported to camp on Monday. The U will go from one to two preseason scrimmages during camp. .. The U will open Thursday’s practice to fans; it will begin at 7:45 pm at Huntington Bank Stadium. … Redshirt freshman Quentin Redding appears to be the No. 1 punt returner at this point in preseason.