Senior day on Saturday for group who’ve had ups and downs

Senior day will be on Saturday against Northwestern in the class of 2019’s last home game of the season.

Jack Warrick

This year’s seniors — a group who has been through a lot of change in the past four to five years — will play in their last game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday.

The seniors who have gone the distance have played under three head coaches, won two bowl games, seen two different practice facilities, a boycott, a Super Bowl and five quarterbacks in their years with the program. They will play their last home game against Northwestern. 

“Senior day is really important. Especially for all these seniors in what they’ve been through,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “A lot of these seniors have been through three head coaches. That’s very difficult. That’s like three divorces.” 

In 2015, when the true seniors were freshmen, the team was led by then-head coach Jerry Kill. Kill suffered with problems caused by epilepsy, and had to resign midway through the 2015 season. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys took over from there. The Gophers finished with a 6-7 overall record, with a victory over Central Michigan in the Quick Lane Bowl. 

Claeys remained as the head coach in 2016, and took the team to an 8-4 regular season record. Just before the bowl game, 10 players were suspended for an alleged sexual assault that took place during the regular season. The entire football team held a boycott of the bowl game for those suspended players. Claeys supported the players during the boycott with a tweet. The boycott didn’t last long, however, and the Gophers won the Holiday Bowl over Washington State 17-12. Claeys was fired a week after the bowl victory.

“I want to thank all of them for what they’ve been able to do, because they’ve learned more about life and they’ll know that 10, 15 years down the road. They might not know it now, but … they’re going to be thankful for every experience they went through,” Fleck said.

Fleck, a former Western Michigan head coach, came into the picture after the Claeys firing, when he was hired early in 2017. He swapped out most of the coaching staff with his own coaches, as many head coaches do. 

Under Fleck, the Gophers have seen a combined 10-12 record (4-12 Big Ten). They’ve have had ups like a 41-10 win over Purdue last week, and downs like the 55-31 loss to Illinois the week before that.

“Those guys have been through a lot, especially the guys who have been here four years, five years,” Quarterback Tanner Morgan said. “[Center] Jared Weyler meant a lot to me. He really helps me out every single day, and has helped me out since I got here.”

There are 13 seniors on the roster, but two of them — running backs Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith — will play next year in their final season of eligibility after each was granted a redshirt year this season due to injury.

Smith will walk with the group during the ceremony, Fleck said.

“He wants to walk with some of the people that he came in with,” Fleck said. “I just don’t want anybody panicking and wondering what’s going on if that happens.”

The Gophers will take on Northwestern in the final game at TCF Bank Stadium this season. The Wildcats clinched the Big Ten West division last week with a 14-10 victory.

“Just knowing that this is their last game at TCF, that’s big, and we got to do something for them,” running back Mohamed Ibrahim said.