Fixing defense is Job 1 for Gophers football


The game wasn’t yet 24 hours in the past and the vision of Illinois’ Reggie Corbin running wild still was vivid. The Gophers had lost 55-31, with the Fighting Illini raining big plays seemingly at will on the Minnesota defense.

When coach P.J. Fleck made his Sunday morning appearance on WCCO radio, he quickly declared that, “yesterday was completely unacceptable.” And a few hours later, he acted on that assessment by relieving defensive coordinator Robb Smith of his duties.

The move wasn’t surprising, given that Smith’s defense had been trending in the wrong direction since the Big Ten season started, with conference opponents amassing an average of 43.2 points and 507.7 yards per game against the Gophers.

Smith’s firing addressed the team’s biggest concern, though expecting the defense to make a 180-degree turn under interim coordinator Joe Rossi would be unrealistic. It also showed that Fleck knew that he needed strong decision for the present as adheres to his step-by-step plan of building the program for what he sees as a successful future.

Later in the WCCO interview, Fleck gave an example of just how future-focused his approach is.

“The result,” he said, “is just dated information. All it does tell you exactly where you are right now. It doesn’t tell you where you’re gonna be.”

Problem is, those dated information checkpoints are the 12 games each season that fans pay attention to — and pay admission for. Exactly where the Gophers are through nine of those is 4-5 overall and 1-5 in the Big Ten.

The future can be tough to sell when the 20-point losses mount in the present. That was on display in the Gophers’ last home game, when an announced crowd of 33,273, the smallest in TCF Bank Stadium history, showed up on a cold, rainy Friday night against Indiana. If fans’ anger fades into indifference, the Gophers will have major issues. There are, however, signs that Fleck’s plan is bearing fruit — at least on offense. True freshman receiver Rashod Bateman has 42 catches for 578 yards and six touchdowns — including the 67-yard winner against Indiana and 61- and 86-yard scores at Illinois. Quarterback Zack Annexstad led the team to a 3-0 nonconference record as a true freshman starter, and redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan passed for 302 yards and three TDs in the win over Indiana. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim joined Bateman and Morgan in winning Big Ten freshman of the week honors, the first time the Gophers had more than one freshman honored in a season. And it’s not difficult to envision freshman offensive linemen Blaise Andries and Daniel Faalele becoming future all-conference performers and NFL draft picks.

“Our offense is getting better. I see it every single week,” Fleck said Tuesday on KFXN-FM. “We’re getting better with some of the youngest talent in the country that’s starting for us.”

Just where the Gophers will be in the future hinges on improving that defense. That won’t happen overnight, but Fleck has put an emphasis on recruiting defensive players in the Class of 2019. It’s not his style to rely heavily on junior college recruits, though he has commitments from two JUCO defensive tackles and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him add maturity in the secondary.

“We’re going take four or five, maybe, in this class to be able to clog a hole here or there and get some girth,” he told KFXN.

Of course, hiring a defensive coordinator who can transform that side of the ball will be another key to whether Fleck’s vision of a successful Gophers future becomes a reality.

“You’ll see the results eventually,” he said on KFXN. “If you don’t, I’m not going to be here that long.”

 

Randy Johnson covers college football for the Star Tribune. Twitter: @RJStrib. E-mail: rjohnson@startribune.com



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