The current structuring of the Big 10 is about as balanced as the NBA, save for the fact that in this instance it’s the East that’s loaded while a single team (Wisconsin) is well situated to dominate the West division every single season.
There are three big issues that make this the case. The first is Wisconsin’s own advantages as being the only major football school in a decently-sized and talent-rich state. The other is the fact that Nebraska has been wondering in the wilderness for a while now, unable to find a formula to match the one Tom Osborne used for so many years. At some point it has to be considered that Nebraska’s success was heavily tied to having such a unique and innovative coach and system in place and in having it in place for the better part of modern college football history. Anyways, the Cornhuskers aren’t currently that much of a threat to annual Badger hegemony with Tommy Armstrong Jr gone and the Nebraska defense in turmoil.
The final issue in the Big 10 West is that the other school sitting alone in a big state has failed to make much of their football program. Now that school has P.J. Fleck in charge and it’s time to see what might be possible for the Gophers if they put forth a more concerted effort to marshall their resources. In the meantime, Fleck is inheriting a solid foundation.
Gopher size in the Fleck spread-RPO system
At Western Michigan, Fleck ran a “college-style” offense largely built around outside zone blocking with pass options attached. After getting hired by Minnesota he snatched up OL coach Ed Warriner from Ohio State and has been putting the beef on the Gopher roster to work with more downhill, inside zone blocking.
With returning H-back Nate Wozniak, a 6’10” 275 pound blocker, and a massive collection of OL back the Gophers have some interesting resources on hand for the purpose of nailing down the most essential element of Fleck’s offense, the run game.
In particular they were very good executing the two main iterations of inside zone that can make a spread-I formation team truly formidable, split zone...
...and weak zone.
In their spring game they always ran the ball at the 3-tech and “rush” LB/DE with a bubble screen to hold the nickel and then some kind of backside route to try and hold the free safety. In the first clip you see them attempting to throw a “glance” route to punish the free safety for dropping into the box but missing wildly.
The value of these two base runs is that the H-back can pick off a DE and allow double teams on both defensive tackles AND create a new gap in the box that a DB has to fill.
The big OL that Minnesota regularly fields are pretty brutal on these double teams as most DL can’t hold their ground against 600-700 pounds pushing against them. The double team on the weak zone play above was the reason for the touchdown, the free safety is down in position to make the stop but the RB presses up and finds a crease off the tremendous displacement the double team gets on the 3-technique.
That play is the biggest sign that this “Fleck in Minnesota” thing might really work out quite well. For much of the spring game the Gopher QBs did not show a mastery of the quick hitting pass-options that make this system so deadly. It’s truly an underrated skill to make that read and set the feet in time to deliver an accurate ball within that window, particularly on the glance route.
However, if you can still run the ball on a front that has an extra man sitting in the box then you’re going to be pretty competitive. From there, the next question is whether the passing game can beat man coverage, particularly on passing downs. This was the problem for Western Michigan against Wisconsin and it doesn’t appear that Fleck is on the verge of solving it at Minnesota either:
The Gophers will benefit from having the 6’5” Rashad Still to aim at, as they do here, and also 6’5” 250 pound tight end Brandon Lingen. However, they’ll need better accuracy from the QB position in the RPO and dropback passing game before they can really contend for a Big 10 West crown.
Gopher size in Robb Smith’s defense
In year one at Arkansas, current Minnesota DC Robb Smith transformed the Razorbacks into a brilliant defense. Then D-linemen Trey Flowers and Darius Philon graduated and everything came apart at the seams.
After a couple of disastrous seasons, Brett Bielema decided to move the Hogs to a 3-4 defense for 2017 and Smith bowed out and took this job with Fleck. In the spring game Smith showed a pretty standard 4-2 nickel defense based around the Under front. They’d set their nose tackle, Steven Richardson the best player on the team, to the field while using an OLB standing up as the boundary, weak side DE.
They’d show this cover 1 look and also mix in cover 6 (cover 2 on the boundary, 2-read to the field) as a more unfriendly alternative to the passing game. This is more or less the system that Smith ran at Arkansas and the trouble they got into there came from a lack of strong DL play. Take this instance against Texas A&M, which ran all over Arkansas:
The nose is completely collapsed, which leaves the linebackers in a tough spot trying spill Knight outside while dealing with an arc-blocking TE and oncoming LG/LT combo that are coming almost unimpeded by the nose. Contrast that with this play in the spring by Richardson in the same position:
He shoves the center over and effectively closes both A-gaps before coming off the block to make the tackle in the B-gap. Richardson is one of the better DL in the entire country and should make life easy for Smith in executing his Under fronts without fear that his linebackers will be dealing with both blockers and space on runs to the wide side of the field.
In the long term?
Perhaps the biggest question is whether Fleck will be able to make the most of his own recruiting chops AND Minnesota’s positioning within a large and largely overlooked state.
So far the 2018 class for Minnesota includes 19 commits, five of which come from within the state of Minnesota itself, and two of which are defensive tackles. The Gophers will be starting over at defensive tackle in 2018 after Richardson moves on and given the essential nature of the position in Smith’s defense that’ll be a key feature to track.
On the coaching side Gophers need to find QBs that bring the missing passing element to their smashmouth run game, or else develop their current QBs in that art, then continue to bring aboard quality DL. So far it seems Fleck is aiming to do exactly that and is mixing his general recruiting chops with the same kind of careful evaluation and locking down of home talent that made Western Michigan a force to be reckoned with. Keep an eye out for the Gophers as a potentially more viable challenger to the Badgers out west than traditional powerhouse Nebraska.