Before arriving on campus for a visit in December, Charlotte wide receiver Elijah Spencer had only interacted with Minnesota head coach PJ Fleck via FaceTime. As the two sat down in Fleck’s office for their first face-to-face meeting, Spencer had a question:
“What do you know about me?”
Fleck told this story at his Signing Day press conference, admitting that his first impression of Spencer was based on the words of former Minnesota defense coach Marcus West, who spent three seasons as assistant head coach and assistant defensive coordinator at Charlotte, and Jenna Thompson. Minnesota’s director of on-campus recruitment and alumna of Charlotte.
“I told him what I knew and what I was told‘ Fleck said of his response to Spencer’s question. “But I haven’t really knows because I haven’t experienced it yet.”
Gopher fans are in a similar situation. You know that as a true freshman, Spencer was named Conference USA Freshman of the Year and led the 49ers this season with 57 receptions, 943 receiving yards and nine touchdowns. But they haven’t seen it themselves yet.
Spencer will be one of a few new faces on the Gophers’ offense this fall.
There’s also Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Crooms, who was the Broncos’ leading receiver this season with 57 receptions, 814 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Another western Michigan transfer, running back Sean Tyler, recently flipped his signing from Oklahoma State to Minnesota. He has rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons.
This off-season has always been a transitional period for the Gopher offensive. Quarterback Tanner Morgan has finally exhausted his playing eligibility after starting 47 games in the past five years, and running back Mohamed Ibrahim is moving to the NFL after rewriting the program’s career and rushing records. Perhaps the last remnant of her Minnesota era is wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, who will return for a seventh year after applying for a medical redshirt.
The biggest loss is that of Ibrahim. He was the engine that powered the Gophers’ offense this season, and Minnesota often struggled to move the ball when it wasn’t in their hands. Ibrahim averaged 26.6 carries and 138.8 rushing yards per game, the latter brand ranking second among all FBS running backs. The Gophers’ air attack paled in comparison to their ground game, ranking 12th in passing attempts and 116th in passing yards per game nationally.
There are those who believe that the gophers relied too much on Ibrahim, causing the offense to become one dimensional and other aspects of the offense to atrophy. But there are also those who have had no problem turning a one-time running back into a workhorse.
The debate is moot at this point because the reality is that Ibrahim is gone. That has forced Minnesota to adjust its offensive approach, starting with the wide receiver position.
“We need to be able to be a lot more productive at the wide receiver position,” Fleck said on signing day. “We need to make it a lot more competitive in this space.”
Minnesota certainly turned up the heat with the additions of Spencer and Crooms. The Gophers have not had a pass catcher to reach 600 yards in the last three seasons. Daniel Jackson came close this year with 37 receptions for 557 receiving yards, and he’s looking good to lead the wide receiver corps alongside Spencer and Crooms. Le’Meke Brockington, Dylan Wright and Chris Autman-Bell are also among them. But even with all those wide receivers returning, Fleck clearly understands that the status quo won’t be enough next season.
It also helps that the Gophers have legitimate talent as a quarterback. Athan Kaliakmanis, a former four-star contender, caused quite a stir this season when he saw Morgan action in place of the injured Tanner, first when he sparked a second-half comeback against Nebraska and later in a 319-passing-yards-and-two rivalry Touchdowns threw victory over Wisconsin.
“He’s so damn athletic,” Fleck said of Kaliakmanis after the win over Nebraska. “And it’s long and can lengthen the rides. He has a huge arm and is really smart. He makes fun.”
The final piece of the puzzle is wide receivers coach and offensive coordinator Matt Simon, who will finally get his chance to call plays following the departure of previous offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. It’s no secret that Simon had ambitions to become offensive coordinator, and he will be eager to put his stamp on the Gophers’ offense.
It might be hard for some Gopher fans to believe that the offense will look very different next season. Finally, Fleck is still the head coach and his offensive philosophy leans more toward a dominant ground play that can control the clock. But he didn’t recruit Kaliakmanis because he’s so good at handing the ball to the running back, and he didn’t take Spencer and Crooms out of the transfer portal to shore up the Gophers’ run block.
change is coming. I think it was an easy decision to give Mohamed Ibrahim the ball more than 25 times per game because he was the most talented player on offense. With Ibrahim out the door, the talent balance has already shifted and I expect offense to follow suit.