By Julian Basena
MINNEAPOLIS– When head coach PJ Fleck thinks his team is heading into the 2022-23 season, he sees a unit engaged like no other during his time in Minnesota.
“There are a lot of positive things in our program, I can’t wait to see what happens this season. It’s a fun time, it’s a committed team and probably more than I’ve ever had in the my six years in Minnesota,” Fleck said at the Big Ten Media Day press conference. “Probably the most committed team and I can’t wait to see what they have.”
In his sixth season at the helm, Fleck enters his new campaign as optimistic as most coaches, but understandably hopeful for the trajectory of the program. Returning four of the most valuable players from their roster last season, the Gophers have a solid foundation to seriously compete in the Big Ten.
Considered the “Encore 4”, some of Minnesota’s fan favorites will return for the sixth year. Quarterback Tanner Morgan, whose recent marriage and mastery has grounded him into adulthood, running back Mo Ibrahim, who is returning from an achilles injury early in the season, John Michael Schmitz, the only returning starter from Minnesota’s towering offensive line, and leading passer Chris Autman-Bell will all return to help make a splash in the Big Ten.
The most talented when he is in perfect health and the one who asks the most questions is Ibrahim. He rushed for just 163 yards in one game before a broken Achilles derailed his season and sparked immediate concern about what was next for him.
Before being sidelined with the horrific lower-body injury, he was a two-time 1,000-yard rusher and Minnesota’s offensive center for most of his tenure. Even after being injured, he was considered a draft prospect and was expected to want to play professionally.
“Here’s a guy who could have gone to the NFL after tearing his Achilles tendon. I think we’ve all seen it, he was ready for a huge season. Decided to come back not just for himself , but for his teammates,” Fleck said. “He did it for the team and to put a different end to what happened. I think he is one of the best defenders in the country, but more importantly one of the best people you will meet of your whole life.”
The selflessness can also be seen in the lone returning starter, Schmitz, in the offensive line group who will be asked to help lead and maintain the power of the running game that was ranked third in the conference (yards per match and total yardage).
The same goes for the man who will hand it over to Ibrahim. Morgan could have been aiming for life after football, but instead opted to command an attack with a host of new faces to acclimate himself to.
Autman-Bell is also committed, likely in pursuit of improving the passing game with Morgan, his teammate since 2017. For Autman-Bell, a transfer has always been an option, especially since he’s been on his best statistical season on one of the worst passing teams in the league.
While there are no six-year returns on the defense, there is likely a committed interest in maintaining one of the nation’s underrated defenses and perhaps raising its cap.
Linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin and safety Tyler Nubin joined Fleck on media day and appear to be integral to next year’s defensive success. Sori-Marin is someone Fleck calls “our defense’s ultimate connector.”
The two co-stars helped orchestrate a season in which the Gophers were one of the best in the nation in scoring and total defense.
“The engaged part is always duty versus will. Our leadership in this football team is fully engaged in all of this. They want to do the job that is needed, they are eager to do it. They have gone out onto the pitch, doing a job not required, doing things not required together,” Fleck said. “This team is fully committed to each other, and it was fun to watch. They don’t have time to mess around, they go straight in, do their job and improve.”