Ask Minnesota football coach P.J. Fleck how he’s doing and the reply often is an exclamation of his favorite word: “Elite!’’
The Gophers didn’t have many elite days last season once Big Ten play started.
In Fleck’s first year — which he craftily branded as “Year Zero’’ to essentially buy more time for his building process — Minnesota defeated Illinois and Nebraska, teams which were a combined 3-15 in league play.
Minnesota was so inspired by its 54-21 romp over the feckless Huskers that it lost its final two games to Northwestern and Wisconsin by a combined 70-0.
The quarterback who torched Nebraska for 288 total yards and three touchdowns, Demry Croft, celebrated that performance by transferring to Tennessee State, an FCS school.
So what is Fleck selling for 2018?
Sounds like inexperience.
“Whoever is the starting quarterback, he will have never thrown a college pass,” Fleck said. “We’re going to have young wideouts who have never played in a college game. We’ll have some linemen who have never done that. We’re going to have defenders who have never done that.”
Oh, and did we mention co-No. 1 tailback Shannon Brooks is out for the season with a leg injury suffered in winter conditioning.
This should send Gopher fans racing to the ticket office.
What Fleck does have is a quarterback prospect with a cool name and wild statistics from junior college.
Vic Viramontes, who originally signed with Cal, is a 6-foot-1, 215-pound sophomore from Riverside, California. Last year at Riverside Community College, he passed for 1,868 yards and 22 touchdowns and rushed for 1,346 yards and 21 touchdowns.
But in Minnesota’s spring game, Viramontes struggled. He completed 1 of 3 passes for 1 yard, and he carried six times for 21 yards with two fumbles.
The quarterbacks who shined were redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan from Union, Kentucky, and true freshman Zack Annexstad from Norseland, Minnesota.
The 6-2, 205-pound Morgan is the cousin of former Kentucky and NFL quarterback Tim Couch. In the spring game, Morgan completed 18 of 28 passes for 272 yards and two touchdowns but fumbled twice.
Annexstad is a 6-3, 215-pound preferred walk-on whose brother, Brock, is a Gophers receiver and whose dad, Scott, played at Minnesota in the early 1980s. Annexstad, who played as a senior at IMG Academy in Florida, hit 11 of 18 passes for 186 yards in the spring game.
Fleck said the quarterback race will continue in the fall.
“We wanted to see decisive decision-making, accuracy and development in the fundamentals,” he said of the spring quarterback goals. “And grasping the offense. We want to be able to do more.
“Who can give us the ability to do more? How creative can we be with them?”
Far better quarterback play than what Minnesota got last season is necessary to take pressure off its two legitimate offensive weapons: senior tailback Rodney Smith (977 yards, three touchdowns) and junior wide receiver Tyler Johnson (35 catches, 677 yards, seven touchdowns).
But Fleck hasn’t lost his enthusiasm for trying to get the Gophers a conference title for the first time in 51 years.
“We love the challenge,” he said. “We love the chaos. It fits me. I’m the king of the ‘toos’ — too small, too short, too inexperienced, too young. That’s who we are and who our staff is.”
Fleck has been labeled the front man for the “new age” of college football coaching. Whether he is on the cutting edge or the bloody edge remains to be seen as we head to Year Zero Plus One.
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Minnesota at a glance
Coach: P.J. Fleck, second year, 5-7
2017 record: 5-7 (2-7, 6th in West)
Returning starters: 12 (5 offense, 6 defense, 1 kicker)
Good news: At least the offensive line had enough bodies to fill two teams for the spring game. In Fleck’s first spring, the O-line had only four players available by the end of camp because of injury and attrition.
Not so good: Interior defense. The Gophers have a lot of work to do to replace defensive tackle Steven Richardson, who started 44 games in four years, and linebacker Jonathan Celestin, who was second on the team in tackles each of the past two seasons. At tackle, Alabama transfer O.J. Smith will try to fill a gap.
Pay attention to: Recruiting. The Gophers have six commitments for 2019, and are outdueling some Big Ten and national powers on such prospects as Illinois defensive back Tyler Nubin and Missouri defensive end D’Vion Harris.