The University of Minnesota spring football game had offensive linemen starring in a trio of trick plays, a 3-point shooting contest between the U’s basketball coaches and a star running back in three pieces of attire in order to resemble his head coach.
Daniel Faalele and Sam Schuelter scored touchdowns; honorary football coach Ben Johnson edged Lindsay Whalen on a portable hoop set up pregame at the 50-yard line; and Mo Ibrahim, not playing as he observes Ramadan, wore a neck-tie, windbreaker zip-up and sunglasses to look like P.J. Fleck.
But it wasn’t a three-ring circus at TCF Bank Stadium, where the maroon team beat the gold squad 24-17 on a summery Saturday in front of both fans and the marching band for the first time since 2019.
Here are six takeaways:
After Daniel Faalele, the Gophers’ 6-foot-9 and roughly 350-pound offensive tackle, rushed for a touchdown in the 2019 spring game, he lined up as a wildcat quarterback and threw for a TD to Ko Kieft on Saturday.
After he opted out of the 2020 season, any role for Faalele in 2021 is a welcome sight for Gophers fans.
“He looks really good,” Fleck said. “Where he was weight-wise to where he is, so proud of him. … He’s got a long way to go to keep developing. Having him, and how big he is, is a huge advantage for us.”
Fleck stressed Faalele, who injured his leg in 2019, needing to develop in both pass- and run-blocking.
Two Gophers losses in 2020 boiled down to missed kicks (Maryland and Wisconsin), and the kicker competition remains a work in progress coming out of roughly 15 spring practices.
On Saturday, Brock Walker made his one attempt from 25 yards, while Dragan Kesich was 1 for 2, with a make from 28. While Michael Lantz is on the roster, the scholarship player is not part of the U’s plans.
Incoming transfers — Kent State’s Matthew Trickett and Temple’s Will Mobley — are expected to join the program in June.
“We got two guys coming in, and we are really excited about those guys. And they will compete with Dragan and Brock, and the best guy is going to kick,” Fleck said. “Simple.”
One player Gophers fans were looking forward to seeing was Texas A&M receiver Dylan Wright, but he did not play for an unspecified reason. This keeps the competition for the third wide receiver more open behind Chris Autman-Bell and Daniel Jackson.
Players with more than one grab Saturday were sixth-year senior Clay Geary (four for 74 yards), third-year player Mike Brown-Stephens (2-25) and first-year Brady Boyd (2-60).
“There are going to be a lot of people that catch passes in 2021,” Fleck said. “… That wide receiver corp is really hungry and really youthful.”
Time for ’T-Time’
With cornerback Benjamin St-Juste taken by Washington in the third round of the NFL draft on Friday, the U must fill the vacancy on the other side of veteran Coney Durr.
Going into his fourth year, Terell Smith has been one of the most-improved players this spring, Fleck said. He intercepted Zack Annexstad in the end zone to seal the win.
“I face him every day in practice,” Autman-Bell said. “T-Time’s length and speed and everything, he’s a great corner. It’s kind of tough for me sometimes playing against him.”
The Gophers followed the state’s COVID-19 guidelines and distributed 10,000 tickets for the spring game within two hours on April 15, and fans physically distanced through the stadium Saturday.
Gophers AD Mark Coyle told KFAN the U is looking into plans for having more fans in the stands, with one possibility being full capacity for the season opener against Ohio State on Sept. 2.
Any plan will be contingent on how the state deals with the pandemic in the next four months and what Gov. Tim Walz’s office does to crowd guidelines.
Two defensive transfers stepped up early for the maroon team, and they finished with three tackles apiece.
Linebacker Jack Gibbens (Abilene Christian) made a nice read to fill to keep Trey Potts to a short gain on a third down, and on fourth and 1 defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney (Clemson) stuffed a rush to bring a turnover on downs.
The spring game MVPs were Autman-Bell, Smith, DE Jah Joyner (two sacks) and LB Derik LeCaptain (INT). … Tanner Morgan went 9 of 17 for 148 yards and a TD to Autman-Bell, and he also caught a TD pass from Brown-Stephens. Annexstand went 14 for 23 for 232 yards and two INTs. … The Gophers had a handful of key players not participating: DLs Boye Mafe, Esezi Otomewo, Val Martin; TEs Brevyn Spann-Ford, Bryce Witham; C John Michael Schmitz; LB Josh Aune; DBs Michael Dixon, Sol Brown; QB Jacob Clark; and more. Fleck said there were no disciplinary issues in play, while injuries and COVID-19-related reasons were involved. … The U welcomed back three 2020 NFL draft picks on Saturday: Antoine Winfield Jr., Kamal Martin and Carter Coughlin.