Fleck talks Bateman, COVID and first day of training camp

Fleck talked with the media about the current state of Gophers football after day one of training camp.

Gophers+Head+Coach+P.J.+Fleck+calls+out+to+a+referee+at+Raymond+James+Stadium+in+Tampa%2C+Florida+on+Wednesday%2C+Jan.+1.+Minnesota+holds+a+24-17+lead+over+Auburn+heading+into+the+third+quarter+of+the+Outback+Bowl.+%28Kamaan+Richards+%2F+Minnesota+Daily%29

Gophers Head Coach P.J. Fleck calls out to a referee at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday, Jan. 1. Minnesota holds a 24-17 lead over Auburn heading into the third quarter of the Outback Bowl. (Kamaan Richards / Minnesota Daily)

Matthew Kennedy

Even with the new procedures amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a season about to start with players on limited practice reps and All-American wide receiver Rashod Bateman opting out of the 2020 season, Gophers’ head coach P.J. Fleck is still optimistic his team will go above and beyond expectations for the second year in a row. 

Bateman, a projected first-round selection in the 2021 NFL draft, recently went on ESPN’s First Take to discuss opting out to play in the NFL and said it “was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make.” Bateman has asthma and didn’t want to put his family at risk by playing during the 2020 season. 

Fleck said he fully supported Bateman’s decision as well as any other players who decide to sit out. 

“We haven’t really done a lot, we had spring, then workouts and today [in camp]. When you look at the bodies and athleticism we bring in, it’s really exciting. With Rashod out, 78% of passes are coming to the rest of our receivers and that is a good problem to have with confident, yet selfless receivers,” Fleck said. 

Without Bateman, there will be more rotation than last year according to Fleck. Even with an experienced quarterback in redshirt junior Tanner Morgan as well an older offensive line, the Gophers are looking for younger players and inexperienced upperclassmen to “step up” in other positions. 

One group Minnesota will be counting on to step up is the receiving corps. Usual slot players and athletes lower on the depth-chart in 2019 like Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas will have a much larger role this year. 

“We are going to evolve [as a team] how our players evolve…Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglass made a ton of plays for us last year and can play any position schematically,” Fleck said. 

Even though Fleck trusts Autman-Bell and Douglas, the team is looking to be more of a “WR by committee,” after the losses of its two top receivers in Bateman and Tyler Johnson, adding to the theme of players “stepping up.” 

On the topic of COVID-19, Fleck preached that it is paramount that he and his staff support any player’s decision to opt out. He wants them to, first and foremost, be safe. 

“If a player decides he doesn’t want to play he is going to have support from me. We all have our own circumstances and our own families and choices to make,” he said. 

He also added the Gophers have four mental health professionals on staff. Fleck has implemented meditation to help with players’ mindsets in a strange and difficult time. Fleck is making use of bubble machines and bubble guns in the facility as well, to constantly remind players of how they should try to create “synthetic bubbles” for themselves, stressing the importance of a team bubble. 

An additional challenge for the Gophers aside from the pandemic and the loss of Bateman is rebuilding the team’s defense. Minnesota graduated several starters on the defensive including Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin and Thomas Barber. The Gophers also lost star safety Antoine Winfield Jr. to the NFL Draft. 

Fleck was excited and proud of his players work ethic this offseason and cannot wait for new faces to get more playing time.

“Sometimes when younger players have all of those elite players playing in front of them, they keep hitting the top [of a jar] wondering if they are ever going to play,” Fleck said. “Once you take that top off then boom! You see potential and talent that you never saw before.”

While the Gophers are scheduled to play at Michigan State in less than a month, Fleck is spending all his energy on the present. 

He is not sure what the future will hold and what decisions will be made by the University, the Big Ten conference and the NCAA, but his philosophy is to dial in on what you can control and keep focus on what’s happening now in an ever-changing pandemic.

“There’s not even a plan to put pads on a week from now, and that might even be pushed back. We are going to do things at a snail pace to make sure our student-athletes are safe … This virus is so humbling and we as a team have to focus on now, we can’t prepare for the next three weeks because it could be wildly different.”