Twenty-two Minnesota players were recovering from surgeries entering last year's spring game, the first under new head coach P.J. Fleck. They had four healthy offensive lineman and significant injury-caused depth issues elsewhere. Unable to create full teams, Fleck opted for four 15-minute running-clock quarters of drills and scrimmaging.
With winter weather set to sweep across the midwest this weekend, spring games across the Big Ten were being canceled. Wisconsin canceled theirs on Tuesday and Michigan and Northwestern followed suit on Wednesday. After last year's debacle, Minnesota was not canceling.
Minnesota. Was. Not. Canceling.
Instead, the Gophers moved it up two days to Thursday night at TCF Bank Stadium.
"Canceling the spring game was not an option," an emphatic Fleck told HERO Sports on Wednesday. "I wanted it as a reward for our players and our fans and that's not an option. We wanted to make sure we gave them a chance to watch our football team."
The roster was split into two teams two weeks ago when Fleck led a spring game draft. It's not a new concept — other programs are doing it this year and have in years' past — but it's an important one for a transitioning program caked with inexperience. The Maroon team was drafted by junior linebacker Thomas Barber and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, while the Gold team was chosen by senior running back Rodney Smith and defensive coordinator Robb Smith.
"I think our coaches really, really enjoyed it," a laughing, almost giddy, Fleck said. "I think our players enjoyed it."
"I think it's great for our football team to have that type of true game. We're going to have a quarterback — whoever is the starting quarterback — they're going to be a quarterback that has never thrown a college pass.
"We're gonna have young wideouts who've never played in a college football game. We're gonna maybe have some linemen who have never done that. We're gonna have multiple defenders who have never done that. So we have to give them that type of game simulation the best we possibly can."
Minnesota went 5-7 (2-7) in the Big Ten last season. It was their lowest win total since 2011 and they enter 2018 without, as Fleck said, a quarterback who's taken a college snap. Literally, zero total snaps from the five quarterbacks on their roster. Two of the three starting candidates — Vic Viramontes and Zack Annexstad — joined the team earlier this winter, a third — Tanner Morgan — redshirted as a freshman last season. So while the spring game won't change their game experience, it will, at the very least, give them the feel of a game situation.
"I think its a win-win for everybody," added Fleck.