Minnesota’s offense clicks with new offensive coordinators

The Gophers have seen success and energy under Mike Sanford and Matt Simon.


Kamaan Richards

Gophers Runningback Mohamed Ibrahim carries the ball for a touchdown at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday, Jan. 1.

Brendan O'Brien

Continuity is one of the key elements every football coach and player loves to have coming into any season, and those who have it are reaping the rewards in an odd 2020 season.

For the Gophers’ offense, continuity was somewhat of a mixed bag at the beginning of the season. Yes, Minnesota replaced former offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca with new co-coordinators in newcomer Mike Sanford and newly promoted Matt Simon.

But, the team also had the luxury of returning many key players like Tanner Morgan at quarterback, Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell at receiver and Mohamed Ibrahim at running back.

Even the offensive line had continuity with three returning starters and two others, John Michael Schmitz and Axel Ruschmeyer, who were ready to step into starting roles.

With over a third of the season completed, Morgan and the coordinators have communicated smoothly during games, playmakers have been getting the ball and the offense has seen continuous improvement from game to game.

Against Michigan, Minnesota had a few early possessions that did not turn into points and put the team in an early hole. At Maryland, the Gophers clawed their way back from an early deficit through the rushing attack, but they failed to close out the game and lost in overtime. And last week against Illinois, the offense took control of the game early and went on to top the Fighting Illini 41-14 with 541 total yards.

Not only has the offense been playing well as a whole, but two significant developments have come from this new offensive staff. One is the player-coach relationship that has developed with Sanford. While it might take time for players to be accustomed to a new play caller, most Gophers have said Sanford and Simon have not changed the play-calling and concepts drastically from last season.

What has changed, however, is the new energy Sanford brings to the unit.

“I love coach Sanford to death. When he came in for spring ball, he was very aggressive in practice,” Autman-Bell said. “He’s very high-energy, just like [head coach P.J. Fleck] as well. It’s really good that your offensive coordinator is super hyped and super energized. He’s always the first one there to hype you up.”

The second development is the stellar individual performances, particularly from Ibrahim. Coming into the season, it was thought Ibrahim might share the backfield with redshirt freshmen Cam Wiley and Treyson Potts like he did last season with Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks.

Instead, he has taken over as the go-to guy. In the first three outings, Ibrahim averaged a little over 190 rushing yards per game, ran for more than 200 yards twice and scored 10 touchdowns. He was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week after scoring four touchdowns in his second game in a row and setting a career-high in all-purpose yards with 282 at Illinois.

“I watched the Outback Bowl knowing I would possibly be in this position, and to say that I became a Mohamed Ibrahim fan would be a huge understatement after watching that Outback Bowl,” Sanford said. “His character is on a different level.”

The receiving corps has also begun to pick up where it left off last season. Bateman had his first dynamic performance last week, hauling in 10 catches for 139 yards and getting under a high-arching pass from Morgan for his first score of 2020.

And after being the third option throughout 2019, Autman-Bell stepped up against Maryland for his first career 100-yard receiving game and also went up for a deep pass and came down with it for a highlight-reel score.

Minnesota’s offense will face its next challenge this Friday at home against Iowa. The Hawkeyes are coming off a shutdown victory against Michigan State. In the first three Gopher-Hawkeye meetings under head coach Fleck, Minnesota is 0-3 and has averaged 20 points per game.