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P.J. Fleck’s walk-on warriors

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Recruiting and branding mastermind P.J. Fleck has been working the walk-on program in an effort to build up the Minnesota roster into the kind of squad that can compete for B1G titles.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

College football got some interesting news when PJ Fleck announced that freshman, walk-on QB Zack Annexstad was going to start for the Gophers this season. The announcement was met with no small amount of amusement by Annexstad’s former OC at IMG Academy, Rich Bartel:

The Bison haven’t actually played Minnesota recently enough for that retort to have made much sense but rhetorically it was poignant truth. It’s been the case for sometime that the Gophers were ignoring players that were powering ND State championship runs that were regularly more impressive than anything Minnesota was doing on the gridiron.

Whether or not Annexstad is “the next Baker Mayfield” or recruited over by Fleck in the coming years, there’s been an obvious intent by the new Gopher coaching staff to nail down a new formula for program building in Minneapolis.

Minnesota’s hidden trove of talent

Much like Wisconsin, there has to be a healthy amount of skepticism over whether the recruiting services have a great feel for how much talent might be available in the state of Minnesota. With a population of 5.5 million people, the state has a greater likely yield of athletic talent than you’d guess and the University is the only major competitor for that talent.

The only problem is that football isn’t as heavily emphasized in Minnesota as, say South Florida, so the athletes within the state are more difficult to scout. However, that means there are lots of multi-sport stars like the guys that end up filling out the Wisconsin (5.8 million people) roster. While seeking to rebuild the roster, Fleck has taken nine Minnesotans in two classes but he’s also mimicking the Tom Osborne strategy of convincing as many local talents as possible to join the team as preferred walk-ons.

Initially, the big win of landing Annexstad was that he convinced a pair of considerable IMG talents to join him. You get the sense that Annexstad could have had some good scholarship offers (indeed he had a few) but he was always intending to play for Minnesota (his father was a Gopher starter) and ready and willing to pay his own way while freeing up scholarships for other players. He then convinced IMG OL Curtis Dunlap (6-4, 368 pound 4-star) and Daniel Faalele (6-8, 400 pound 4-star) to take the room that was made by him and 10 other preferred walk-ons (mostly from Minnesota and Wisconsin) opting to forego scholarships.

It’s a common strategy these days to fill out the 85 scholarship spots by snatching up players with the means to pay, drive to compete, and love of a school’s tradition to take preferred walk-on spots. It makes a team’s culture stronger to have guys like that and those ranks can regularly produce useful and sometimes even excellent players if they are scouted carefully and then developed in a strong program.

North Dakota State-type football

That was a fitting diss by the previous staff of Annexstad’s ability level. The Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys’ eras of Minnesota football absolutely wanted to play like North Dakota State, combining physical defense with a power run game. That the school would ever fail to be eager to stock up on the kinds of players that the Bison have used to realize that vision is curious. It’s not as though North Dakota State’s football quality only holds up relative to their competition, the school has played three midwestern P5 programs since 2013. They beat Kansas State 24-21 in 2013 while running the ball 43 times for 215 yards at five ypc. In 2014 they pummeled Iowa State 34-14 while running it 44 times for 302 yards at 6.9 ypc. Finally in 2016 they took it to Iowa 23-21 with a 49 carries for 239 yards at 4.9 ypc day.

The Gophers would love to run the ball in Kinnick like that.

It’s particularly amusing in light of the QB comparison since the Bison had Philadelphia Eagle starting QB Carson Wentz at that time and his replacement Eason Stick is getting a little NFL draft buzz as well. Then there’s the guy Craig Bohl found after leaving Fargo for Wyoming, 2018 first round pick Josh Allen.

P.J. Fleck has seemed more willing to roll with less heralded Minnesotans beyond just Zack Annexstad. The prospective 2018 OL will feature a fifth year senior Ohioan at center, a second year JUCO at LT, and then younger Minnesotans at the other three positions. The four starting LBs are also all Minnesotans.

These are typically the spots that define the character of a team and Fleck has stacked them with locals that ideally would bring the kind of Minnesotan size and toughness that ND State looks for when they try to pillage the state for power run blockers or dominant defensive components.

Fleck’s offensive scheme is different though than the Bison and Annexstad’s fit this season is very obvious. His job will be to get the ball by a variety of tactics to the perimeter to clear up space between the tackles for star RB Rodney Smith to punch through the A-gaps.

The Gophers’ run the same “tight zone” scheme as the main thrust of their offense that Ohio State utilizes, which should be no surprise since they employed former Buckeye OL coach Ed Warriner last year before Harbaugh poached him for Michigan.

This run helped propel the Chris Petersen Boise State teams and was a big ingredient to Art Briles’ “veer and shoot” offenses at Baylor. It’s largely indiscernible from “duo” with similar OL footwork and aiming points/reads for the RB. Perhaps more to the point, it’s really just the classic “Veer” play but arrived at with modern schemes and formations. Rodney Smith is a master at it.

It’s not just zone-read but what some coaches will call “zeer” because the back is trying to hit the cutback lane in between the unblocked “read” defender (the OLB this time) behind the double team. Different teams put varying amounts of focus on whether the doubles want to climb to LBs or stick on DL longer and trust the back to set up the LBs for the advancing blockers.

Rodney Smith is really good at setting up the LBs and has the sort of jump cut and first step quickness that made so many Boise backs wreak havoc in this particular scheme. The QB’s goal is to use an option read, whether it be a keeper around the edge or a pass option, to help maintain the wide spacing of the spread formation. From there, it’s six blockers and seven gaps for the six men of a nickel front (plus a safety usually) to try and account for. The downhill nature of the play combined with the need for the defense to get an extra man into the action makes it prone to creating vertical creases that a quick and savvy back can shoot through.

It’s subtle, but the way that Smith reads the positioning of the linebacker before darting through the vacated strongside B-gap is a great example of how wildly effective he is within this scheme. One of the best ways to handle this play is to have the LBs key the TE and run to the cutback lanes...but Smith knows how to punish that by running behind the double team into the lane that’s either been vacated or left for a safety to try and fill.

That just leaves the question of how effective Annexstad can be in the various constraint plays that clear space inside and make it that much easier for Smith to punish hesitant LBs with darting cuts downhill. While Minnesota brought in JUCO dual-threat Vic Viramontes in their last class in the hopes that he could make their spread run game go, Annexstad is the superior option on campus for executing RPOs.

With junior WR Tyler Johnson poised for a breakout campaign a year after going for 677 receiving yards at 10 yards per target, that’s the main key to making the Gopher “veer” hum in 2018.

The west division of the Big 10 is starting to heat up with Wisconsin and Iowa still running strong but Nebraska, Purdue, and Minnesota all getting started with exciting offensive minds running the show. The 2018 season should be an intriguing one while 2019 could be a war.