Gophers football: Five key position battles going into fall camp

PUBLISHED July 31, 2023 at 2:58 p.m. | UPDATED: July 31, 2023 at 8:10 p.m.
Gophers football players have been listening to Bret Michaels sing “Every Rose Has Its Thorn” and other ballads with the band “Poison” during weight-room sessions since January.
It became a thorn in their sides.
Playing off P.J. Fleck’s new buzzword — “poise” — the U weight room cranked up the sounds that 1980s glam-rock band to help drive home a point.
“If you don’t have poise, it will be poison,” Fleck said at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis last week. He wants his mix of veterans and inexperienced players to show control and balance in hostile situations this season.
Team leaders on the program’s “board of directors” told Fleck what they thought about the new soundtrack at a weekly meeting. “Coach, listen, we get it,” Fleck relayed his players’ response. “We just want a little less ‘Poison’ in the weight room.”
Their wish was granted and the playlist became more eclectic, but the message remains as the Gophers opened preseason camp Monday.
In order for the Gophers to strike a sought equilibrium this season, these four position battles will need to be filled for the U to have a strong season this fall.
Running back
Mo Ibrahim’s tree-trunk legs are no longer driving the Gophers downfield as the program’s all-time leading rusher played his sixth and final season at the U last fall.
The Gophers have three candidates to fill Ibrahim’s huge role — Sean Tyler, Darius Taylor and Zach Evans.
“Two of those three are really going to emerge,” Fleck said. “They could be the next backs we talk about. That is what you want, you keep reloading — whether it is through the (transfer) portal or though recruiting. You want that to stay the same.”
Tyler, a Western Michigan transfer, put up some big numbers in the Mid-American Conference (495 carries, 2,830 yards, 23 touchdowns) across four seasons at Western Michigan.
Evans, a coveted recruit from Rockwell, Texas, played in one game for Minnesota as a redshirt freshman a year ago, scoring his first career touchdown in the 31-3 blowout of Northwestern.
Taylor, a four-star recruit who turned down the Michigan Wolverines to come to Minnesota, enrolled early at the U for spring semester.
When Ibrahim tore his Achilles in the 2021 season opener, four other tailbacks shouldered the load that season. The U would love to have that sort of depth again.
Position favorite: Tyler
Right tackle, left guard
The Gophers have to replace all three interior offensive linemen, with Quinn Carroll moving from right tackle to right guard and Nathan Boe stepping in from swing offensive lineman to center.
With Aireontae Ersery an anchor at left tackle, that leaves right tackle and left guard as the biggest openings up front.
“That is going to be the battle of camp,” Fleck said Monday.
Six-foot-7, 330-pound tackle Martes Lewis has “played a lot of football and has really committed to his body,” Fleck said. “He’s committed to understanding the game even more.”
Lewis and JJ Guedet, who has struggled to stay healthy, will compete at right tackle, while Tyler Cooper and Karter Shaw are candidates at left guard.
“This is (Cooper’s) time to go, and I’ve told him that,” Fleck said.
Position favorites: Lewis (RT) and Cooper (LG)
Lead-by-example and lead-by-tackles Mariano Sori-Marin is gone, with Cody Lindeberg the clear heir apparent. After that, this position is wide open after both Braelen Oliver and Donald Willis entered the transfer portal.
Fleck mentioned Western Michigan transfer Ryan Selig, Devon Williams and Maverick Baronowski as players to keep an eye on.
“Those are the guys who are going to be fighting for that spot,” Fleck said. “It’s going to be fun to watch.”
Position favorite: Selig
The Gophers were down to three scholarship cornerbacks in spring practices and addressed this gaping hole with two additions in the portal — Tyler Bride (Georgia Southern) and Tre’Von Jones (Elon).
“That is going to be one of the main things that we are looking at,” Fleck said. “(Bride) is such a mature young man. If you know anything about Georgia Southern football, they are all really good players and are well-coached and tough. He’s been a bright addition to what we just brought in.”
A handful of youngsters are also in the mix, including redshirt freshmen Tariq Watson, Ryland Kelly and Victor Pless.
“We didn’t have many guys in spring at that position and having that transfer portal helped us, gave us some depth,” Fleck said.
Position favorite: Bride
Who’s calling plays?
Fleck has withheld the decision on which of his two co-offensive coordinators — Matt Simon or Greg Harbaugh — will call plays this season.
“We are going to keep that in-house for right now,” Fleck said Monday. “I’ve come this far, I don’t think there is any point in letting you know. We have an idea of what we are going to do and what we want to do.”
The Gophers’ season opener on Aug. 31 against Nebraska and new head coach Matt Rhule has been a factor in Fleck’s decision to not reveal his point person.
“Why give somebody information that they can take that and run with it and give them more time to plan?” Fleck said.
The Gophers will open two practices to fans during preseason camp: at 7 p.m. Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium and 3:30 p.m. Aug. 15 at Athletes Village. Fans on Saturday are encouraged to bring diapers for families in need and personalized oars to be hung on the stadium’s wall from the locker room to the field. … Gopher fans have donated more than 115,000 diapers across the past six years.

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