Minnesota Gophers football captains Tanner Morgan and Mariano Sori-Marin traded light-hearted trash talk before they will suit up on opposing sides for Saturday’s spring game at TCF Bank Stadium.
The gold team’s middle linebacker first poked the maroon team’s quarterback. “Tanner Morgan is such a gold-team fan, he wears gold (no-contact jersey) in practice every day,” Sori-Marin said. “I don’t know if it’s because he can’t get hit, or if he’s just a gold-team fan, I don’t know.”
Minnesota’s No. 2 responded with a shot at Sori-Marin. “(Number) 55 thinks he knows what he’s doing, but he’s gonna be out there running like a chicken with his head cut off,” Morgan said.
Given how Sori-Marin played at times in 2020, that dig might cut a little deep, but Morgan was just playin’ around.
The jabs came in a video the program posted midweek to promote the spring game’s draft of players for each side. But it appears the program’s primary offensive and defensive coordinators were purposefully paired with the top communicator/leader on that side of the ball. Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi rides with Sori-Marin on the gold team; Minnesota offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. teams with Morgan on maroon.
Both sides of the ball had their own issues during last fall’s 3-4 season, and these pairings should help deepen the relationships for the game at 11 a.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
During the 2020 season, Minnesota’s defense was ripped apart early in blowout losses to Michigan and Maryland, while the Gophers' offense didn’t have the same production with Sanford in ’20 as it did with Kirk Ciarrocca in 2019.
Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck cited the pandemic for halting spring ball in 2020 after its first week and only one padded practice, while COVID-19 continued to disrupt the program throughout a season that ran into mid-December, with as many as 33 players out for certain games.
Sanford, in his first season at Minnesota, said last year was a work in progress, from learning Morgan’s strengths to how he learns and processes best and how Morgan was previously trained at the position.
“I have such a better feeling now, not only going through a season but even more going through an entire offseason for the first time,” Sanford said Tuesday. “What makes Tanner tick, how he sees the game. We’ve spent an incredible amount of time together. Now I understand even more how to play the game through his eyes and help him see the game through my eyes and essentially for us to be able to do that together. So essentially, he is a coach on the field and I’m playing the game up in the box with him.”
One aspect is Morgan and Sanford, who is coming from Utah State, describing formations, schemes and plays in the the same vernacular. “Being able to speak the same language is critical,” Morgan said. “We definitely felt that we spent a lot of time strengthening that this offseason.”
Sanford said he has challenged Morgan to be explicit in what he wants called in games.
“ ‘What concepts do you like?’ ” Sanford relayed. “The same thing for me: call what he likes, call what he’s comfortable with. Don’t call what I know just because I want to feel good about myself because I’ve been doing this a good amount of time and have run a lot of different offensive schemes and philosophies and concepts. Call what Tanner does well.”
On defense, Rossi’s unit lost seven starters (four NFL draft picks) from 2019. Given the turnover and lack of time to prep, Rossi said he had to make a decision.
“Are we going to put everything in and say OK?” Rossi said. “Or are we going to pare things down? Then you have to pair things down. We didn’t have success early. So what do you do as a coach, well, what you do is you simplify. And you say we are going to get better throughout the course of the season. That is what we are going to do. I would like to think that’s what happened.”
In the first two games, Minnesota gave up an average of 47 points and 576 yards per game against the Wolverines and Terrapins. But the Gophers trimmed those numbers to 23 points and 351 yard per game across the final five.
“I would also like to think that is the floor; that’s our floor — how we ended the season,” Rossi said. “Where the ceiling is going to go, I can’t tell you right now. We’re working at it.”
Sori-Marin’s struggles were at the top of the list of defensive problems in 2020. His 45.6 grade from Pro Football Focus ranked 771st among linebackers in the nation in 2020. But Sori-Marin improved as the year went on and won Big Ten defensive player of the week for his 18-tackle game against Nebraska.
“There were times I was out of position and working to do too much and not my job,” Sori-Marin said. “I just had to take a step back and realize I know what my job is on paper. I can sit there and rattle it off, but at the end of the day you have to do it.”
The Gophers looked for a linebacker in the NCAA portal and netted graduate transfer Jack Gibbens from FCS-level Abilene Christian. Rossi said they were particularly impress how the 6-foot-4, 240-pound player performed in a nonconference game against Power Five competition in Virginia.
“Sometimes guys have listed sizes and then they’re not as big as advertised. He is,” Rossi said. “He can run, and he makes plays. He’s definitely added to the group. We’re excited to have him.”