Fleck sells Minnesota in Chicago

New head football coach P.J. Fleck and three players spoke at Big Ten media days for the first time.

Head coach P.J. Fleck fields questions from the media during the Big Ten Media Days event Tuesday at the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago.

Chris Dang

Head coach P.J. Fleck fields questions from the media during the Big Ten Media Days event Tuesday at the McCormick Place Convention Center in Chicago.

Jack Warrick

P.J. Fleck addressed a packed conference room Tuesday morning in Chicago, on the final day of the Big Ten Media Days.

Fleck and three Gophers players took the trip to Illinois to talk with members of the media covering the conference.

Gophers in attendance

Running back Rodney Smith, defensive lineman Steven Richardson and linebacker Jonathan Celestin were all in attendance for Minnesota.

Fleck called Smith the “personality” of the football team. Smith was last season’s leading rusher with 1,158 yards. Running back Shannon Brooks was second on the team in rushing yards with 650.

“The running game, I’m not sure what they did last year, but I do know what we do,” Fleck said. “[Smith] and [Brooks] are going to be highlighted.”

Richardson — a defensive lineman and Chicago native — is on three watch lists this offseason for the Bednarik, Outland and Bronko Nagurski awards, all major college football awards for defensive players.

“The culture is everything,” Richardson said. “It’s definitely what helped us grow from the situation we were in.”

Celestin was a starting linebacker last year with 80 tackles. Fleck announced during his opening remarks that Celestin lost his father this offseason.

“[Celestin] has shown a ton of perseverance over the course of this offseason,” Fleck said. “To be able to handle that in the offseason with a new staff was very challenging for him.”

Quarterback situation

Fleck said Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft were the two quarterbacks who have “separated themselves a little bit.”

Rhoda started one game last year; a 31-10 win for Minnesota over Maryland. Rhoda threw for 82 yards and a touchdown in the victory.

Croft redshirted last season but played in three games as a substitute the season before.

“We were balanced before, we just struggled throwing the ball, so we have to be elite running the ball,” Smith said.

Fleck said there is a possibility for a two-quarterback offense, although he would like to stay away from it.

“I want somebody to take this and say this is going to be my football team,” Fleck said.

Lack of depth

Fleck talked about the Gophers’ response to the lack of depth in the roster this season.

“We have low numbers at our defensive line,” Fleck said. “We don’t have a freshman, sophomore [defensive tackle]; we only have one junior defensive tackle on our entire roster.”

Minnesota is not lacking linebackers, however. Linebackers Carter Coughlin and Blake Cashman might move around the field from linebacker to defensive line in this upcoming year to make up for the short numbers.“We’ve got to be creative,” Fleck said. “Looking more like a 3-4 on defense this year than a 4-3, but still from our 4-3 scheme.”

Being P.J. Fleck

ESPNU announced on Thursday it would run a four-part mini-series reality show on Fleck.

“One thing I am hired to do is bring national exposure to the University of Minnesota,” Fleck said. “[Being P.J. Fleck] is not a title I would necessarily pick, but I think it’s every head coach’s job and responsibility to bring attention to their institution.”

It will debut Aug. 2 on ESPNU at 8 p.m. The 30-minute episodes will run every Wednesday at the same time until Aug. 23.

“I think it’s going to bring a lot of great attention to the University,” Richardson said. “He’s already been bringing some great, positive energy over the stuff we’ve been through.”