Season preview: New Gophers offense has been veiled but alterations are expected

Bryson Rosell / Pioneer Press/Pioneer Press/TNS

It’s that Christmas present sitting under the tree, pristinely wrapped and staring at you for weeks. Or it’s that story a friend said you just had to hear, only to make you wait for it.

The expected new-look Gophers offense will finally be unsheathed for the first time in the 2023 season opener against Nebraska on Thursday night at Huntington Bank Stadium.

P.J. Fleck has intentionally and unintentionally built up this level of anticipation. The Gophers head coach has repeatedly declined to share which of his new co-offensive coordinators (Matt Simon or Greg Harbaugh) will call plays in games. Some of this, Fleck admitted, is to try to seek a competitive edge against the Cornhuskers, under new head coach Matt Rhule.

During a preseason practice, Fleck was caught on a hot mic saying he didn’t want to show the Big Ten Network his offense during the TV partner’s visit to campus. In another rare open practice, new starting quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis didn’t throw any passes. Fleck later said it was Kaliakmanis’ lone rest day of the preseason, and the fact that it came on the same day fans and media members were present was just a coincidence.

The Gophers offense has been widely expected to shift from a run-heavy style with star tailback Mo Ibrahim — who set new program rushing records last fall — to a more balanced approach with big-armed Kaliakmanis. Minnesota will use a by-committee approach at tailback this fall, while the U boasts the deepest collection of pass catchers across any of Fleck’s seven seasons at the U.

The Gophers have run the ball on at least 60 percent of offensive snaps in each of Fleck’s six seasons, including 67 percent last year after peaking at 70 percent in 2021.

But don’t expect the U to be going to a spread offense, without huddles and use of five wideouts, this fall. Maybe that Xmas present won’t be all that memorable and that kept-secret gossip not that interesting.

“When we talk about our offense, I think it started with everybody saying, ‘It must be different. You have to assume it’s going to be different. There is a different play-caller,’ ” Fleck said last week. “We still have our same philosophical beliefs. That will never change.”

The first stat Fleck looks after a game is time of possession, and he puts a huge emphasis on winning turnover margin. He always wants to establish the run, play stifling defense and be one of the least penalized teams in the country. Rhule praised him last week for those specific attributes.

On the topic of a shifting offense, Fleck has also harkened to 2019, the U’s 11-2 season when Minnesota had two all-Big Ten receivers in Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. That year, the U still ran the ball on 63 percent of snaps.

“It’s the execution of the offense and the efficiency of the offense,” Fleck said. “That is what we want to be able to see with what we do and how we do it. There are different people out there with different strengths. That doesn’t mean the system changes. There is a reason why you hire from within, to keep that system very similar.”

Simon has been Fleck’s longtime receivers coach, and Harbaugh, the new quarterbacks coach, has a long history with Fleck as well. Quality coaches shift to players’ strengths, and the Gophers’ passing offense has more weapons than its run game to start the season.

Six-foot-7 target Brevyn Spann-Ford is considered the best tight end in the Big Ten. Last year’s No. 1 receiver Daniel Jackson is back after blossoming at the end of the 2022 season. Chris Autman-Bell has returned from a season-ending knee injury last September. Le’Meke Brockington scored the winning touchdown against the Badgers in Madison, Wis., last November.

Plus, the U added two targets in the NCAA transfer portal — taller split end Elijah Spencer (Charlotte) and shifty slot receiver Corey Crooms Jr. (Western Michigan).

During one of three open practice, Kaliakmanis aired it out with two long completions, to Jackson and Brockington. Will fans see more of that this fall?

“Yep,” Jackson said. “We are going to be an efficient offense. We are going to make plays and we are going to — whatever is called — we are going to make the most out of it.”

Gophers two-deep depth chart

Position — Name (years remaining)

QB — Athan Kaliakmanis (3); Cole Kramer (2)

RB — Sean Tyler (1); Zach Evans (4)

WR — Corey Crooms Jr. (1); Kristen Hoskins (4)

WR — Chris Autman-Bell (1); Le’Meke Brockington (3)

WR — Daniel Jackson (2); Elijah Spencer (2)

TE — Brevyn Spann-Ford (1); Nick Kallerup (2)

LT — Aireonte Ersery (3); Tyrell Lawrence (3)

LG — Tyler Cooper (2); Ashton Beers (4)

C — Nathan Boe (1); Karter Shaw (1)

RG — Quinn Carroll (2); Greg Johnson (4)

RT — Martes Lewis (3); JJ Guedet (2)

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