P.J. Fleck has bristled at the length of his Gophers tenure being used as a marker for where others believe his program should be this season.
“This has nothing to do with Year 7,” Fleck said after a 37-3 loss at second-ranked Ohio State on Saturday. “The last two years are completely different than anything that college football has ever seen. It’s not like, ‘Hey, Year 7, you should be reloading.’ ”
Fleck points to the way the NCAA transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) compensation for players have changed the landscape in the past two years.
This fall, the Gophers (5-6, 3-5 Big Ten) have fallen off the pace and failed to win the West division championship in its final year of existence.
Beyond graduations, the transfer portal and NIL — often combined to one factor — have pinched the Gophers’ overall roster talent and depth. When injuries hit this season, the ramifications of the new landscape are exposed in jarring ways.
“There are freshmen running all over that field,” Fleck said Saturday from Ohio Stadium. “You are not going to beat the No. 2 team in the country with freshmen running all over the field. Again, it’s investment toward the future. Sooner or later a program like us, you are going to have to do it.”
The fallout has been deepest this season at running back and linebacker, and three reasons are at play: 1. Graduations; 2. Injuries; 3. Transfer portal.
The Gophers lost All-American running back Mo Ibrahim after his sixth season in 2022, and its top linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin left after his fifth a year ago.
Further down the depth chart, LB Josh Aune of St. Paul and RB Preston Jelen of Prior Lake were done at the U.
This factor has been an inevitable fact for as long as college football has existed. The next-man-up mentality is as old as the sport.
Minnesota’s all-Big-Ten-caliber linebacker Cody Lindenberg has been limited by leg injuries and has played in only two games this season, while freshman phenom tailback Darius Taylor has been dinged up, taking the field in five games and burning his redshirt season.
It’s not just headliners, either. RBs Bryce Williams and Zach Evans have also been hurt, including Evans’ latest injury to his shoulder coming in the Buckeyes loss. New starting LB Maverick Baranowski was sidelined by a shoulder injury in the Purdue loss and missed the Buckeyes defeat. Depth piece LB and special-teams contributor Derik LeCaptain has been sidelined all season.
“We are missing a lot of our best players and a lot of playmakers, and as I said before, we are not very deep,” Fleck said Saturday. “And that is my issue. That is something that we have to continue to address here and get deeper as we go.”
The Gophers’ linebacker depth was undercut after last season when Georgia native Braelen Oliver transferred home to Georgia Tech and Donald Willis went to Western Michigan in the Mid-American Conference.
Meanwhile, running back Trey Potts, who was behind Ibrahim last season, also went home to Penn State.
Knowing their roster shortages at both positions after 2022, the Gophers brought in a pair of players from Western Michigan: RB Sean Tyler and LB Ryan Selig. Neither has contributed much on the field this fall.
This led Minnesota to starting redshirt freshman walk-on Tyler Stolsky at linebacker and redshirt sophomore Jordan Nubin, a converted safety, at running back against the Buckeyes.
The issues at running back go back two years, with MarKeise “Bucky” Irving transferring to Oregon and Ky Thomas transferring to Kansas. Also, Cam Wiley left for Akron. The Irving loss stings the most, given his success with the Ducks and knowing NIL was in play in his decision to leave.
Fleck continues to emphasize how his program will be developmental in nature, meaning it will rely mostly on high school recruiting. But does that formula shift a bit to more portal additions now?
The Gophers had 18 players leave via the portal from the end of last season into May. The U also brought in 10 during that period.
Fleck has continued to be clear on how NIL contributions will be needed to keep current players on the roster. This list starts with Taylor.
“We also have very good players that we have to hold onto, and part of that is the NIL” Fleck said Tuesday on his KFAN show. “We’ve got to hold onto the players. We can just keep bringing them in and we can keep being young every single year. That is the reality of college football.”
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