Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Non-Gopher Topic: Breaking Down Ryan Redington's Victory in the 2018 Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon.

Each year I volunteer, with members of my family, at the Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Northern Minnesota. My cousin is the coordinator for the Sawbill Checkpoint. In addition to helping work the checkpoint, I enjoy following the race and sort of “armchair mushing” the strategies.

This year’s Marathon was roughly ~370 miles and began with 10 mushers. Each team can begin the race with 14 dogs. The ten teams included 8 very experienced and strong mushers, along with two first timers.

Nathan Schroeder and Ryan Anderson have combined to win the previous 7 Beargrease Marathon’s (4 for Nathan, 3 for Ryan), with Ryan Anderson being the defending champ. Blake Freking and Keith Aili are also past Beargrease Champions. Perennial contenders Colleen Wallin and Denis Tremblay were in the mix, along with up and coming North Shore musher Matt Schmidt and last year’s Runner Up, Ryan Redington who is originally from Alaska, but currently lives in the UP of Michigan.

Two rookies rounded out the field of ten. Kevin Mathis of Iowa, and Blair Braverman of Michigan. Both had competed in, and completed the Beargrease Mid-Distance race (roughly 150 miles) in the past.

Unfortunately the two rookies ended up scratching from the race. Kevin scratched before the midway point after a rough start. There was word that his team got in a bit of a tussle before the start of the race, which lead to some early trouble.

Blair had a steady race, but ultimately ended up scratching about three-quarters into the race. I think there were two reasons Blair struggled and neither was in her control. One, the Beargrease trail is difficult. That is an absolute fact and as such, rookie mushers often don't fare well. Second, in comparison to the 8 other teams on the trail, it would be very difficult for a rookie team and musher to keep up.

In many years, with more teams on the trail, often consisting of other rookies or mushers running younger/puppy teams, Blair would have likely been in the mix in the second half of the pack, but that was not the case this year with a relatively small field of competitors. 

A note on the difficulty of the race. The Beargrease trail winds from Duluth up the North Shore of Lake Superior, then back down. While the race doesn’t have some of the long climbs and descents that the long famous races of Alaska have, or other races in the Western Lower 48 states, what makes Beargrease so difficult is the number of short steep hills, often in rapid succession.  There are a lot of quick ups and downs, which is both unusual and unfamiliar for most dog teams. Mushers from Alaska have commented on how difficult the trail is, saying things like “the hills just keep on coming.”

There are a total of 8 checkpoints between the start and finish of the Beargrease Marathon and teams must take at least 30 hours of rest in those checkpoints throughout the race.

There are two mandatory rest spots: 8 hours at Grand Portage (the halfway point of the race) and 4 hours at Highway 2 (the final checkpoint before the finish of the race), meaning teams must take 18 hours of rest throughout the other 6 checkpoints, averaging out to 3 hours/checkpoint.

There are basically two strategies to winning a distance dogsled race. Go faster than all of the other teams, or take less rest than all of the other teams. Obviously it’s slightly more complicated than that, and mushers have to assess the strengths and condition of their teams, but in general, those are the main winning strategies.

With Beargrease having a mandatory amount of rest, the strategy of cutting rest isn’t really available. Sub strategies exist. For example, some teams may rest early in the race, conserving their team's energy for later in the race. Some may take less rest early so that they can get ahead of their competition, perhaps causing them to make a mistake or deviate from their race plan due to being behind. There are no doubt countless other ways of thinking about it, but I am not a musher myself, so this is just my observation.

Regardless of the strategy, for the Beargrease Marathon, one thing is consistent: the top teams will have taken exactly 30 hours of rest (plus their time differential from the start of the race), and not a second more.

This year, Freking & Tremblay essentially “blew through” (stopped only for a couple of minutes) the first checkpoint at Finland, stopping only to give their dogs a snack, then moved on to tackle the run to the Sawbill checkpoint. Redington took a longer, but still short, 1 hour break. Those three mushers arrived at Sawbill 1-2-3 as expected, followed steadily by the other 5 seasoned competitors.

The next two checkpoints at Sawbill and Trail Center are where Ryan Redington essentially called his shot. First, he left the Sawbill checkpoint about 45 minutes before any other team, meaning he took shorter rest than anticipated, and then he posted the fastest time (5 hours, 1 minute, 8 seconds) to make the run. Other competitors were close in run time, but Redington did it on less rest.

At this point, the wisdom was that yes, Redington was out in front, but he was well behind other competitors in amount of rest taken. The concern at this point becomes burning out your team. If you go too fast and/or with too little rest, dog teams can shut down and refuse to run.

Next, continuing the trend, Redington took the least amount of rest at Trail Center, then posted the 2nd fastest run time to the halfway point at Grand Portage. He had taken about two hours less rest than the other competitors, but was running as fast as anyone, and still had a strong team of 11 dogs.

The other 7 main competitors stayed pretty bunched up behind Redington, seemingly employing a similar strategy to each other. They arrived to Grand Portage within 30 minutes of each other, but about 3 hours after Redington.

The race plan that these 7 mushers were employing had been a winning one in the past, but Redington had essentially turned that on its ear.

After an 8 hour & 18 minute rest (the mandatory 8 hour rest plus his time differential from the start of the race) at Grand Portage, Redington hit the trail on the way to Skyport. This is where, in my opinion, Redington really won the race. Leaving 3 hours ahead of his competitors, he made the 53 mile run 20 minutes faster than the next fastest team. He then left Skyport just an hour after his closest competition, who at that point of the race was Ryan Anderson, arrived to the checkpoint.

He was still 90 minutes behind the other teams in rest, but the speeds he was posting and just the psychology of the first place team already leaving a checkpoint shortly after you have arrived, may have been demoralizing for the other teams. 

If it wasn't already, it was now Redington's race to lose.

This is probably a good time to mention that Redington comes from a lineage of mushing royalty. Redington’s grandfather, Joe Redington Sr was one of the founders of the Iditarod in the early 70’s, and his entire family are dog people. Ryan himself won the Junior Iditarod in 1999, has competed in 9 Iditarod’s, completing the race five times with a personal best finish of 14th in 2017.

At 35 years old, Redington literally has a lifetime of experience with dog mushing.

The run from Skyport to Sawbill was more of the same. Redington posted the fasted time, besting Anderson by about 12 minutes and still posting an average speed of over 9mph, while other teams were closer to 8.5mph and under.

Redington took a relatively short rest at Sawbill of about 2 hours, which lead to him being able to take over 3 hours rest at Finland. None of the other mushers would have this luxury. 

All that was left for Redington was the run to Highway 2, his mandatory 4 hour rest at the race's final checkpoint, then the 35 mile run to the finish at Billy’s Bar in Duluth. As it turns out, that was a run that he was able to leave for nearly 2 and a half hours before his closest competitor, which was defending champ Ryan Anderson. Continuing the trend, Redington did the final stretch 24 minutes faster than Anderson.

This was a bit of a statement race, in my opinion, for Redington. He shot out of the gate in 2017’s Beargrease like a streak of fire, but his team speed suffered late in the race. Presumably his team burnt out on the hills because he ended up finishing the race with just 7 dogs. This year his strategy was similar, but perhaps a bit more conservative early. Additionally, his team was likely better conditioned to maintain the pace.

[UPDATE: Redington confirmed in the Duluth News Tribune that he was indeed more conservative early, and that his team had more training this year than last.]

It’s possible that Redington’s win this year was a Beargrease record. Unfortunately, due to snow and trail conditions over the years, the Beargrease route has undergone several changes, so maintaining any kind of official record isn’t really possible. But from a pure time standpoint, Redington’s finish (32 hours, 20 minutes of trail time) is 40 minutes faster than Nathan Schroeder’s record from 2016.

With Redington now residing in the UP of Michigan, it’s possible he will become a perennial competitor in the Beargrease Marathon. While other mushers continue to improve and push their teams, if Redington is going to be a yearly foe, teams are clearly going to need to step up their speed. A daunting task.

The stranglehold that Anderson and Schroeder had on the Beargrease Championship is over for the moment, but those two aren’t going anywhere and are fierce competitors who will continue to improve.

Keith Aili is a wild card who always puts together fast teams, and Denis Tremblay and Colleen Wallin have shown steady improvement for many years.

Matt Schmidt and his wife Erin Altemus have built a very good team. They share the family mushing duties and are just getting started in competitive races.

Blake Freking and his steady team of Siberian Huskies is always in the mix, particularly any year that the temperatures are especially cold.

Next for Redington is the 2018 Iditarod. There’s really no corollary between Beargrease performance and Iditarod performance, as far as I can tell, but Redington's team appears to be in top shape.

In a typical year the Iditarod begins in Willow, Alaska and ends in Nome, but last year’s Iditarod was run on a non-traditional route between Fairbanks and Nome due to a lack of snow on the traditional trail. The conventional wisdom seems to indicate that the Fairbanks route is faster, as the first half of the race is run primarily on flat, frozen rivers.


There is no doubt Redington has a strong team that is built for speed, even on short rest, and his strong finish on last year’s flatter Iditarod trail is evidence of that. It will be interesting to see how he and his athletes are able to handle the traditional Iditarod trail after an impressive Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon victory.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Minnesota Gopher Football: Looking ahead to 2018- TE and O-line

Here's part two of SGH's look ahead to 2018 for Gopher Football (If you missed it here's part one on the skill positions)...

TIGHT END

GONE: Brandon Lingen, Nate Wozniak (graduated)
RETURNING: Colton Beebee, Bryce Witham (RS Jr), Ko Kieft (RS Soph), Jake Paulson, Clayton Witherspoon (RS Fr)
NEW: Brevyn Spann-Ford (Fr)

This is the position group that is by far the biggest question mark on the team. Thankfully, unlike the previous staff who played roughly seven tight ends in every formation, this staff usually/ideally only needs one, so it's not as big of a deal. But Lingen and Wozniak basically were the tight end depth chart last year as Kieft is the only returning TE on the roster with a collegiate catch (and he has TWO!).

Kieft and Witham (who only played 4 games last year due to season ending injury) likely open spring camp as the leaders for the starting job, but by no means are they the favorites. Beebee played almost entirely on special teams last year despite the injury to Witham, and is likely a blocking TE for short-yardage situations at 270 pounds. Witherspoon is a walk-on from Eden Prairie who redshirted last year.

The two intriguing names to watch are Paulson and incoming true frosh Spann-Ford. Paulson is a big dude listed at 260 pounds and based on his high school scouting reports is a good athlete who moves well for a big guy, and should provide the pass catching and route-running abilities this staff wants at the position. He was a consensus 3 star out of Louisville, KY (you better damn well be pronouncing it LUH-ville as the good lord intended) whose offer list included his home town Cardinals as well as P5 schools Illinois Pitt, and Purdue as well as 2017 undefeated national champs UCF (at least in their own minds).

Spann-Ford is the best athlete of the bunch, and oh by the way is also 6'7 and 245 (and while he'll be a football-only guy at The U he's apparently gotten real interest for hoops from D1 programs). If had enrolled early there was a real chance of him starting as a true freshman but because he doesn't get here until fall camp, barring a complete tire fire from everybody else this spring, he'll likely be too far behind everybody else to even get on the two deep by the opener vs New Mexico State (if this game isn't available on Aggie Vision we're all rioting).

It's likely his chances to play early will depend as much on how the other guys do this spring as how well he plays in fall camp. If the coaches find a couple of guys they like then it makes it pretty easy to redshirt Spann-Ford then unleash him on the B1G in 2019. But make no mistake, the kid is a talen and the Gophers got an absolute steal here. Because he committed so early (back in June) to a school like Minnesota, the recruiting hype and his offer list never really took off. While he did get offers from a few P5 schools in Iowa State, Mizzou and West Virginia with Sparty showing some serious interest, had he kept his recruitment open and/or played at a Metro school instead of up in St Cloud and/or in a larger football recruiting state, his offer list would have been substantial.

He has the size and athleticism coaches dream about for the position, especially in a spread offense. With such a young team at every position and expectations relatively low for the season, IF Spann-Ford shows he's ready to contribute now the opportunity could very well be there for him to get on the field ASAP.

OFFENSIVE LINE

GONE: Vincent Calhoun, Garrison Wright (grad), Nick Connelly (retired last Oct due to injury)
RETURNING: Donnell Greene, Jared Weyler (RS Sr), Bronson Dovich, Quinn Oseland, (RS Jr), Ben Davis (Jr), Conor Olson, Sam Schlueter (RS Soph), Blais Andries, Nathan Bursch, Eric Rousemiller, Axel Ruschmeyer, Kyle Sassack, John Michael Schmitz (RS Fr)
NEW: Jason Dickson (JUCO Jr), Austin Beier, Nathan Boe, Curtis Dunlap Jr, Daniel Faalele, Grant Norton, Jack York (Fr)

Over the last 10 years, the only position group the Gophers have been arguably worse at recruiting and developing than quarterback is the offensive line. Which is all the more frustrating when you consider the previous staffs were supposed to be operating some variation of a power run offense. Per Gophersports.com since 2006 (the last of the Mason "glory" years) Minnesota has only had one All-B1G first or second team o-lineman: both were Zac Epping in 2014 as he was 1st team media and 2nd team coaches. And that's it. How many o-linemen from this power run B1G school have been drafted since 2006, you ask? Zero. None. Zilch. Nada.

While I will go to my grave believing firing Glen Mason at the end of the 2006 season was the right decision (and that hiring Timmy Brewster was the 1000% wrong decision), I will admit Mase was incredible at developing an O-line. The Gophers have been trying- and failing- to replicate his success ever since. Hopefully (and this site IS Still Got Hope after all), this is the year we get back to recruiting and developing real offensive lines.

When Fleck inherited this team a year ago he had six (!!!) healthy offensive linemen for spring camp, and was down to four by the time he could even think about a spring game. The game 1 depth chart had 9 actual players plus a true freshman they hoped to not play (Andries) on the o-line, and was down to 6 or 7 healthy non-true frosh linemen by seasons end. Faced with this kind of attrition there wasn't much even a wizard like line coach Ed Warinner could do. So he and Fleck attacked that problem in recruiting with not only quantity but quality (all seven incoming recruits were rated at least 3 stars per 247), and with a year of development for all the returning guys under Warinner, this group has a chance to take a BIG step forward in 2018.

Let's stop here to recognize how important Warinner is to this team: Fleck gets a lot of hype for being an ace recruiter and rightfully so, but Warinner should get the bulk of the credit for reeling in the best O-line class Minnesota has had in the internet recruiting era. He's one of the best o-line coaches in the country as he was named Coach Scoop's Offensive line Coach of the Year twice in 2012 and 2014. But he's also a hell of a recruiter as Rivals named him one of the top 25 recruiters in the country back in 2014. Sure, he was at Ohio State then and while you might think the Buckeyes recruit themselves, his consistency in not just recruiting top high school linemen year after year but turning them into very good college players who go on to get drafted in the pros cannot be overstated.

You better believe that kind of track record was a big reason the Gophers landed some of the line talent they did in this class, the kind of blue chippers we never dreamed of getting here before. The O-line has a real chance to make the biggest strides of any position group on the team in 2018, and if they can do that, it's going to make breaking in a new quarterback a far easier task. It's not going out on much of a limb to say the biggest key to a much improved 2018 season for the Gophers isn't so much who plays quarterback or which receivers emerge, but whether Warinner can mold his o-line into the kind of group we haven't had since the Mason years.

Thanks to yet another season of a ridiculous run of injuries for the offensive line, for the first time in a long time the Gophers should have not only five actual guys for a second string that have some experience and talent, but could go three deep at some spots as well. I know, I know, what a concept!

Let's start with what we know: Greene, Olson, and Weyler should be opening day starters at tackle, guard and center respectively. Greene has a legit chance this season to end the All-B1G and undrafted drought for Gopher linemen. He's everything you'd want in a left tackle with size (6'7 320), strength and athleticism. IF he can turn into the dominant LT many are predicting, that would go a long ways to solving the offensive line woes we've had in recent/every season. Olson started all 12 games last year with the first six at guard, then shifted to center for the last six after Weyler went down for the year due to injury. He's rock solid and will be back at guard full-time. After starting eight games as a guard in 2016, Weyler seamlessly shifted to center last season and looked good before he got hurt. All signs are that he'll be back to full health and ready to go.

The battles for the other guard and tackle spots should be fascinating, and filled with guys with talent and/or experience. Let's start at tackle: there will be at least four guys battling for this job (I'm not ruling out a fifth from Australia who is roughly the size of Australia but we'll get to that). Last year's week one starter at RT Connelly unfortunately had to retire mid-season due to injuries, which threw now RS Soph Schlueter into the fire as he started the final five games of the year.

He likely starts spring camp atop the depth chart but is really going to have to fight to keep that job. The coaches not wanting to play Andries last year had nothing to do with talent and everything to do with the conventional wisdom of not playing true freshmen on the line if at all possible. "Blaise of Glory" Andries was the top recruit in Minnesota a year ago, a consensus high 3 star recruit and a top 30 tackle in the entire country. The kid is a stud and it's likely only a matter of time before he starts at one of the tackle spots.

But whether the future is now for Andries depends not just on beating out Schlueter but also Dickson. A transfer from Diablo Valley JC in California he comes in as a high 3 star recruit who had big boy offers from a bunch of P5 schools including Arizona St, Colorado, TCU, Texas Tech and UCLA. Were I a betting man (and if they actually had on Gopher football positional competitions) my money would be on Dickson to grab the RT job.

Another RS frosh to keep an eye on is Sassack, a three star commit out of Michigan a year ago.

The wild card in the RT competition is Faalele (pronounced Fa-ah-lay-lay), an enormous, athletic and very raw high three star prospect originally from Australia. You've probably read Andy Staples excellent piece on him in SI from last spring but if you haven't, do yourself a favor and go read it right now. I remember reading that story last year and never in a million years did I think he'd land in Minnesota. And yet here we are. Discovered by a recruiter from the University of Hawaii a couple of years ago, Faalele decided to move to Melbourne, Australia to Florida and attend IMG Academy with no experience playing football. He practiced with the team in 2016 and last year as a high school senior was his first time ever playing in a football game.

To say he's raw is an understatement but my god his potential is basically limitless. Donnell Greene is a massive human being by any measure at 6'7 and 320 pounds, yet at 6'9 and 400 pounds Faalele is two inches taller and EIGHTY POUNDS HEAVIER! That is insane. And what's more, if you've seen a picture of him or watched his O-line-porn highlight videos, he doesn't look like a 400 pounder should. When I think of a 400 pound football player I think of former NFL defensive tackle Gilbert Brown, like somebody who ate every pie at Bakers Square and then decided to just eat the building too. Yet Faalele looks more like an oversized linebacker.

Usually you want to redshirt incoming freshmen offensive linemen because they're just not big enough or strong enough yet, but obviously that's not the issue for Faalele. He'll likely test as one of the strongest players on the team, and is a good athlete too. No, for the big Aussie the issue is reps and technique because he's so new to the game. As we've outlined already, the Gophers have plenty of depth and talent at tackle that they can afford to redshirt Faalele this year then unleash his world-destroying abilities upon the B1G in 2019.

And yet... I can't help but wonder what if he's just too good to keep off the field? He's an early enrollee so he'll be here for spring ball. What if he just destroys the Gopher defense in practice? What if he ragdolls the upper classmen defensive linemen play after play and drill after drill? Faalele truly is a special talent, the kind we just don't get at Minnesota (especially on the line). His offer list included everybody who is anybody in college football (including the two schools who just played in the National Championship). I'm not saying it's probable he could jump into the tackle rotation by this fall, but it's certainly possible.

Which finally brings us to who starts at the other guard spot opposite Conor Olson. Oseland or Dovich will begin the spring atop the depth chart as they're the only two outside of Olson and Weyler with any experience. Oseland started two games last season, one at guard vs Middle Tennessee and the other at RT vs Nebraska. Dovich was a reserve guard and center all of last season.

While both could take major strides this spring and look like a quality starter, the guy to watch here is the true frosh- and Faalele's high school teammate- Curtis Dunlap Jr. A consensus four star and blue chip recruit (His offer list was basically everybody- Georgia, FSU, LSU, Michigan, Oklahoma, USC... you get the idea), 247 had him as a top 200 overall recruit and the #6 guard in the entire country. Dunlap is almost as big as Faalele at a listed 368 pounds and is just an absolute monster. Originally a U of Florida commit, he reopened his recruiting in early December when the Gators changed coaching staffs and the Gophers pounced.

We mentioned Faalele is the kind of recruit we just don't see here, but so is Dunlap, and perhaps even more so: like the big Aussie strength will not be an issue for him, but he was also as three year starter at IMG and played tackle and center as well as guard. If there's ever been a day one starter on the offensive line as a true freshman, this is it. He's surprisingly athletic and mobile for a guy of his size and his talent and ability is as high as anybody's on the team at any position. He's also enrolling early so will be here for spring ball, so if he looks even close to ready he could (should?) be the starter by the season opener.

Bursch, a converted high school tight end, could also be in the mix at guard. Davis, a junior, plus Rousemiller and Ruschmeyer are all walk-ons who redshirted last year so...sure?

Backup center could be Dovich if/when he doesn't win the starting guard spot, but don't rule out RS frosh Schmitz either. A consensus three star recruit a year ago from Illinois by all the recruiting services, Scout had him rated as the #1 center in the Midwest. I THINK the other four incoming freshmen linemen will all red shirt but we shall see.

So to close, here's the best guess at your two deep:

LT Greene (Sr)
    Andries (RS Fr) OR Faalele (Fr)

LG Dunlap (Fr)
     Oseland (Rs Jr)

C   Weyler (Sr)
     Schmitz (RS Fr)

RG Olson (RS Soph)
     Dovich (RS Jr)

RT  Dickson (Jr)
     Schlueter (RS Soph)

Friday, January 5, 2018

Looking Ahead to Gopher Football 2018: Skill Positions

For Gopher football fans, normally early January is a time for recruiting rumors and wondering which MAC-level recruits will sign on the first Wednesday in February. But this year, with a new coaching staff and a new early December signing date, the Gophers have already locked up 26 commitments in a very un-MAC-level class (as of today it's the 30th best class in the country per 247) and are already focusing on the class of 2019.

Coach Fleck has tried to lower expectations for 2018 as much as possible, but just looking over the potential roster for next season there's plenty for Gopher fans to be excited about and give us hope 2018 will be better than last season. Today we'll focus on the offense and save defense for another day (considering I write like twice a year that will probably be in July but anyways).

The offense in 2017 was...not good. Bad even. Downright bad. Unwatchable by the end of the year. A lot of that can be attributed to poor quarterback play, lack of offensive line depth due to injuries, poor quarterback play, a young, inexperienced and injured group of receivers, and let's not forget poor quarterback play. The run offense was good again (isn't it always?) ranking 45th in the country in S&P+ but the passing offense was ranked 113th and the overall offense was 120. Of course if you watched the games you probably could have guessed that.

For 2018 we're getting younger (just a ton of true freshmen, redshirt freshmen and sophomores all over the roster) but should have better depth, more experience AND-potentially- more talent. On offense, this may/could/should/hopefully lead to a better offense, and by better offense I mean we might have finally found a quarterback.

QUARTERBACK

GONE: Conor Rhoda (graduated), Demry Croft (transfer)
RETURNING: Tanner Morgan (RS frosh), Seth Green (RS Soph)
NEW: Vic Viramontes (JUCO Soph), Nick Annexstad (fresh)

As our own MV detailed a couple of months ago on this very site, developing a QB is kinda sorta important for team success and the Gophers have been awful at this for more than a decade. Last year was no exception as Coach Fleck was not able to turn a "gold mine" of quarterbacking talent left behind by the previous staff into anything even remotely resembling a functional starting quarterback.

With Rhoda graduated and Croft transferred, there will be a new starting quarterback for 2018, and if it's anyone other than JUCO transfer Vic Viramontes, we may be in for a long 2018. While he's not a guaranteed star the Flow-a-licious Viramontes has all the tools to be a quality starter from the get-go, and what's more, unlike most JUCO transfers, he has three years of eligibility left instead of two. The top rated JUCO dual-threat QB in this class was also the California Community College Offensive Player of the Year with 1868 yards and 22 TD's through the air and just for fun another 1346 yards and 21 TDs (!!!!) on the ground.

While his passing may be further behind his ability to run the football at the moment, Viramontes should be the most accomplished passer the Gophers have had since Adam Weber (I know that's not saying much but still). He'll have the entire spring and summer to get to know OC Kirk Ciarrocca's offense, which hopefully means by the time the season rolls around the Gopher offense looks more like it did when Ciarrocca ran it at WMU than the dumpster fire that was last season.

After a redshirt season expect Morgan to be the backup. A consensus 3 star prospect out of Kentucky, he's more a classic drop-back passer than true dual threat, but should be athletic enough to keep defenses honest on the read-option when need be. While I'm not sure how ready he'd be to lead the offense right now he could be a legitimate starter down the road.

Annexstad passed up full-ride offers from legitimate schools (Cincy and Pitt) to be a preferred walk-on at Minnesota. If he doesn't earn a full scholarship, the IMG Academy product should at least be added to the school payroll as a recruiting coordinator after his masterful job helping to reel in a couple of giant (both figuratively and literally) teammates and recruits along the offensive line.

As a prospect he's very intruiging- I do not follow recruiting very closely but I do not understand how Annexstad wasn't more heavily recruited. Anyone? I would love an answer. As a 6'3 three star prospect he beat out a legit 4 star prospect at a Florida powerhouse program and helped lead them to an undefeated season. I get it if he's at some backwater school, but IMG? Anyway, while it makes no sense his addition is definitely Minnesota's gain and it'll be interesting to watch his development.

And that's basically your QB depth chart. I am waiting for the announcement that Seth Green is either switching positions or transferring, and am surprised it hasn't happened already.

RUNNING BACK

GONE: Kobe McCrary
RETURNING: Shannon Brooks (Sr), Rodney Smith (Sr), Jonathan Femi-Cole (RS Jr), Mohamed Ibrahim (RS Fr), Dominik London (RS Fr)
NEW: Nolan Edmonds (fr), Bryce Williams (fr)

This remains the one position the Gophers seem to churn out good players no matter the coaching staff, the scheme or the recruiting rankings, and this season should be no different. Smith is a stud (977 rushing last year and also returned a kickoff for a TD) and should be one of the B1G's best backs. If Brooks is healthy and can stay healthy it's as good a 1-2 punch as you'll find in the conference. McCrary was fantastic subbing for the oft-injured Brooks, and the big fella will be missed as a punishing complement to Smith.

If Brooks struggles to stay healthy again in 2018 it opens the door for Edmonds, considered one of the top 25 backs in the country by 247. Femi-Cole is Canadian so therefore obviously awesome, while Ibrahim and London were both 3 star recruits who redshirted last year. The battle for the third spot will be likely be Edmonds vs Femi-Cole but maybe one of the redshirt frosh's pop. Expect Williams to redshirt.

WIDE RECEIVER

GONE:  Eric Carter (grad), Melvin Holland Jr (transfer), Hunter Register (transfer), Rashad Still (transfer)
RETURNING: Will Reger (Sr), Tyler Johnson (Jr), Matt Morse (Jr),  Phillip Howard (RS Soph), Mark Williams (RS Soph), Drew Hmielewski (RS Soph), Clay Geary (RS Soph), Demetrius Douglas (Soph), Chris Autman-Bell (RS Fr), Harry Van Dyne (RS Frosh),
NEW: Paul Gossage (Jr- transfer from Eastern Ill), Yale Van Dyne (RS Soph- walk-on transfer from Iowa. Seriously), Rashod Bateman, (Fr), Erik Gibson (Fr), Jornell Mans (Fr)

Did I forget anybody? Holy moly that's a lot of bodies at wide receiver, and as you can probably tell, it includes very few upperclassmen. And yet, this is a position group that should get you very excited. With all due respect to the guys who left, the Gophers lost very little. Carter and Still were expected to be big contributors last year yet had 6 catches combined. That is not a typo. We had hoped Holland and Register would finally live up to their recruiting hype yet neither had a single catch all season. See ya and thanks for everything gentlemen.

What returns is a lot of youth with plenty of potential but also some production and experience. Now if we can just keep everybody healthy they could take a big step forward. It starts with Johnson, who will enter the season as one of the B1G's best; he basically WAS the passing offense before injuries slowed him and eventually ended his season. Back healthy he could/should have a monster 2018: the question will be who can step up around him? Thankfully there are a ton of interesting- and dare I say talented- candidates.

Besides Johnson there's only three other upperclassmen on the roster: I don't know what to expect of Reger or Morse as both played sparingly last year. Morse was a special teams guy while Reger started the last game vs Wisconsin because by that point it was that or start pulling people out of the stands to play wideout. Gossage was a name I had not heard of before writing this post but he was apparently solid at 1-AA Eastern Illinois before transferring here. At 6'3 he's a name to keep an eye on.

After those three it's all sophomores and freshmen but it's a pretty fun group: Autman-Bell was apparently pushing for immediate playing time in spring and fall camp before a preseason injury ended his season before it started. Douglas played a big role as a slot receiver before- wait for it- injuries ended his season too. Due to those injuries Williams and Howard both got better as the season went on and got more and more playing time. Howard tied for third in catches last year with...11. For the whole season. If that doesn't sum up last year's offensive problems I don't know what does. That's not a knock on him, just that our third leading receiver only had 11 damn catches in 12 games.

The other returning guys either didn't play much or redshirted. Your guess is as good as mine if anyone from that group can break out so we'll see. The Van Dyne brothers sound like the Winklevoss twins or sinister brothers from a prep school movie who are out to get our hero because he's from the wrong side of the tracks/steals their girl/stole the idea for Facebook and won't give them credit for it etc etc. But this couldn't be further from the truth as they are in fact fine, upstanding brothers from Kansas who are just here to help the Gophers achieve our #ROWSBOWL dream of 2019 thank you very much. And sure, the older one made one terrible mistake by going to Iowa but quickly realized it and got the hell out of there so let's not hold that against him, ok?

I am trying to temper my expectations for Bateman as, well, you're probably aware of Minnesota's rich tradition of extremely productive 4 star wide receiver recruits hahahaha just kidding. 4 star/high profile receivers have flamed out in spectacular fashion here so much so that if Bateman just stays on campus for three years it should be considered a major accomplishment, regardless of whether he actually plays.

That said...he should play, or at least will be given every opportunity. Bateman had a huge senior high school season which resulted in 247 bumping him from a 3 to 4 star prospect, and by December he received actual offers from actual helmet schools (or fake offers if you're a certain Nebraska troll) like Georgia, Tennessee, A&M and Va Tech. Watching his highlight film is enough to warm your soul on even the coldest of the January nights and give you dreams of division titles, Rose Bowls and beyond.

So as I said I'm TRYING to temper expectations for him but am struggling mightily. But isn't that what January is all about? Manns and Gibson are solid 3 star prospects who probably redshirt if we can ever keep everybody healthy.

OK so this got wordy, so we'll save the o-line and tight ends for another day.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

PJ (You're a Fine Coach)

Sung to the tune of "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" by Looking Glass


PJ (You're a Fine Coach)

There's a coach in a Midwest town
And some fans wish that he’d calm down
Lonely tweeters with nothing good to say
Just don’t like PJ Fleck

There’s a whole group that just where frowns
And they work puttin’ PJ down
They say "PJ, just run your boat aground"
Just constant groans and whines

But others say "PJ, you're a fine coach" (you're a fine coach)
"We just loved your recruiting spree" (such a fine coach)
"Yeah this class is pretty good… make it three!"
(dooda-dit-dooda), (dit-dooda-dit-dooda-dit)

Some think PJ is a little vein
But he’s just hyper, he can’t turn off his brain
They say Coach Claeys could have done the same
I just spit my water out

Fleck recruits every single day
Even when his boat is underway
And he doesn’t need a nap midday
The next class is on its way

Mark Coyle said " PJ, you're a fine coach" (you're a fine coach)
"With your tactics, I agree" (such a fine coach)
"Handing you this extension gives me glee"
(dooda-dit-dooda), (dit-dooda-dit-dooda-dit)

Yeah, recruiting is just one good thing
No issues in dormatories
He’s turning boys into good young men
“Go to class, it’s mandatory”
But he won’t let them take shortcuts, and he’s got a real plan
Some fans just take longer to understand
(dooda-dit-dooda), (dit-dooda-dit-dooda-dit)

A ‘crootin’ class with no letdowns
PJ walks the streets of Dinkytown
No thoughts of a coach who’s not around
He’s forging his own way

He hopes to hear "PJ, you're a fine coach" (you're a fine coach)
"Now we want some winning sprees" (such a fine girl)
“Hope you can make the haters change their disbelief"

(dooda-dit-dooda), (dit-dooda-dit-dooda-dit)

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

For The Folks Who Don’t Chase Recruiting News Like it’s a Drug

If you’re like me, you follow Gopher recruiting news closely enough to have a general idea of how well things are going overall. You know the names of the top recruits, but some of the other names you’ll wait until signing day to learn more about. And you don’t tweet at recruits.

But for you, the most important thing is this: will the talent level on the field be increased by this recruiting class?

MV is clearly the charts and graphs guy around here, and you should absolutely go back and read yesterday's piece: PJ Fleck's 2018 Recruiting Class is Minnesota's Best.

But today, I’d like to give you three bullet points, that you, casual Gopher fan who doesn’t tweet at recruits, can use in daily conversation to show those around you that you know just enough to be dangerous when it comes to Golden Gopher recruiting.

**Important Note: These comments are valid as of Tuesday evening, December 19, 2017. Things could still change before the ink is on the Letters of Intent, but as of now, I hold these truths to be self-evident, or sumsuch.

#1: Recruiting Absolutely Matters

In October our friend Frothy wrote a piece on this very website (which is still FREE) that “highlighted” the top 25 Gopher recruits since the beginning of the internet recruiting era. I’m not going to reinvent it here, but you should look at the list. It's an amazing read if for nothing other than the "Holy crap, I remember that name! What happened to that guy... OMG..." moments.

Last month the Ghost of MV produced some #content. As shocking as the news was that a ghost could produce material of such quality, what was not shocking was the conclusion of the article: the Gophers lose more than they win against teams who have a better base of talent.

I'll be honest, I didn't realize our dearth of talent in recruiting was so sustained. Yes, Jerry Kill and his staff did a very good job of bringing kids in and coaching them above their star ranking, but at the nd of the day, lack of talent loses.

The numbers prove that teams with better talent, from a recruiting rankings standpoint, beat the Gophers more often than not. The real upshot here is that recruiting absolutely matters, and that is why what PJ Fleck and his staff have done with this class is so important.

Increasing the level of the talent pool at Minnesota is how the Gophers are going to get better.

#2: This Class Moves the Needle

If you take another look at Frothy’s top 25 recruits in the internet recruiting era again, you’ll see that it is littered with 2008 & 2009 recruits. These happened to be Brewster’s first years of full recruiting and 14 of the players on the pre-2018 top 25 list are from those classes.

This is where I remind you that Brewster's prowess as a recruiter was absolutely never in question. Tim Brewster was, and continues to be, one of the top recruiters in the nation. This point is not up for discussion. Joel Maturi was right that Minnesota needed a coach that could increase our recruiting profile, what he forgot is that someone has to coach those kids once they are on campus.

Of the 14 players in those two classes, I’d argue that only five contributed in any meaningful way: Traye Simmons, Keanon Cooper, MarQueis Gray, Ra'Shede Hageman & Michael Carter. Carter is maybe a stretch since he only had one real season on the field, but the fact that we have to stretch to find a fifth player who contributed out of 14 recruits is telling.

This is where I remind you that Tim Brewster was not a good Head Football Coach.

If you reshuffle the deck to include the current verbal commitments to the 2018 Gopher football recruiting class, four recruits would join the top 25: Curtis Dunlap (#6), Rashod Bateman (#17), Daniel Faalele (#20), and Victor Viramontes (#23).

Adding these players to the list pushes the previous bottom four off the list, including three 2009 recruits (Kerry Lewis, Bryant Allen, Hassan Limpscomb), leaving four recruits from that class in the Top 25.

The top 3 classes, ranked by total Top 25 Gopher recruits, after reshuffling to include the 2018 class, in the internet recruiting age are:

1. 2008 - 7 recruits
2. tie: 2009 - 4 recruits
          2018 - 4 recruits

I think it's fair to say that 2008 was an outlier from a recruiting standpoint, and as we know much of that class, along with the 2009 class, didn't pan out (as you'll hear more about below) and thus didn't move the needle for the program.

We know the reason for this is because while the recruiting ability was there for Brewster and his staff, the coaching and teaching part was not.

The difference with PJ Fleck's staff is two-fold. #1: They can coach, they have a plan, and they have a path to execute that plan. #2: PJ Fleck has done this before and he's done it with greater obstacles that he has at Minnesota.

(Editor's Note: Special thanks to Mr Frothy Gopher who helped me round out this piece by writing the following...)

#3: Pump Ya Fist Today, but Watch for Attrition

Top to bottom, this is the best recruiting class in the modern era; but we could have said the same thing in 2008 and 2009. The dagger in those years was attrition. Guys either never showed up to campus or left after a year or two because they never saw the field.

I mean, Clint Brewster is in our top ten recruits ever, and the most offense he's generated is through inflating the rankings of every Michigan commitment over at 247.

It's easy to be happy about this class, but check in on who's on the roster when conference play starts next year. The prevailing trope is that Minnesota's only shot at landing high-end players is by taking dudes with marginal academics or, uh, social skills. Thus, the risk of spectacularly flaming out is pretty high.

It feels like Fleck's class is pretty solid in that regard: a lot of high-character guys who will be coaches on the field and in life. But retaining the top-end talent from the 2017 and 2018 classes will largely dictate whether #2019itty.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Jerry Kill is Retiring due to Health Concerns

Jerry Kill is retiring due to health concerns. He was a head football coach during 23 football seasons.

During his coaching career, Jerry Kill was very loyal to his coaching staff. He coached five seasons at the University of Minnesota.

Jerry Kill was the coach that came after Tim Brewster. 

Kill had a record of 29-29 while at Minnesota and his teams qualified for three bowl games.
Jerry Kill originally retired due to health concerns in the midst of the 2015 football season. 

Following his retirement, Jerry Kill's Defensive Coordinator Tracey Claeys became head football coach. Claeys was then followed by PJ Fleck. 

In March of 2016 Jerry Kill said that PJ Fleck had "walked into a gold mine" by taking the Minnesota job. 

Jerry Kill unretired the following spring in May of 2016 when he accepted a position with Kansas State as Associate Athletic Director.

Seven months later, in December 2016, Jerry Kill was named the Offensive Coordinator at Rutgers, a position he has now announced he is retiring from due to health concerns.

From a personal standpoint, I wouldn't publicly say a bad word about Coach Jerry Kill, who will be missed by many. 

PJ Fleck's 2018 Recruiting Class is Minnesota's Best

I'll get to the punchline immediately: Peej's first full class at Minnesota is the Gophers' best recruiting class in the Internet era.

It goes simply beyond comparing average recruit rating or class rankings according to the recruiting sites (Brewster's 2008 class was ranked 26th with major comparative caveats*, while this class is currently ranked 28th); visualizing the distribution of Minnesota's recruiting classes over the past decade is where Fleck's efforts really stand out.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Emptying the Notebook

If you aren't listening to the Taken All Wrong Podcast, you should be. (Available at https://soundcloud.com/taken-all-wrong and on iTunes or your favorite podcast player.)

Last night while recording, I mentioned that I've tried several times over the last couple of weeks to write some #content for this website so that we could get our hands on somea dem sweet sweet #hitz. But due to depression over the ending of the Gopher football season (I'll leave it to you to guess the reason for the depression), I haven't been able to come up with anything that I felt was of value.

So today, I'm going to do a bit of a "notebook dump," if you will. Here now, are partial blog posts that I've tried to write over the previous couple of weeks that turned into... well, they have now turned into this blog post.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Big Ten Basketball Power Rankings

Well, that B1G/ACC challenge was the ass-kicking we all saw coming. Clearly, even some teams that we thought would be near the top of the conference are underperforming to this point in the season (thanks for nothing, nerds). The Gophers have acquitted themselves well - if you think the loss to Miami the other night was anything less than acceptable you can go ahead and hit the little x in the top right corner - but much of the rest of the league has not looked great. Since unpacking the State of the Conference looks pretty favorable for us to this point, and since conference play for some reason starts this weekend (for two games before taking a 3.5 week break for more cupcakes, the holiday break, and Jim Delany counting his Ea$t Coa$t Ca$h), let's do POWER RANKINGS! Note: this is a talent ranking - essentially where I expect each team to land this year, NOT what their resume has said so far.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Iago's Vengence

Song parody time again! 

This week I'm getting us into the Christmas spirit by riffing off of the best seasonal song of all time, NewSong's "Christmas Shoes." Important context if you're unfamiliar with the Chad Alvarez/Parrot story.

___

It was almost Axe game time, there I stood for the fifteenth time
Wearin’ all my gold gear and maroon, waitin’ for booze to change my mood
Standing right in front of me was a little boy waiting anxiously
Pacing 'round, his hands a knot
And Jesus, in them was a dead parrot
It was dead for a while, crispy and black, it had been fried
When it came time for teams to play
I couldn't believe what I heard him say

Barry, why’d Chad nuke this bird? ‘Twas a felony
His name’s Iago, he really liked to fly
You’re the AD, Bare, and you raised a psychopath
Horseshoe been up your ass for a while
I know it’d make Iago smile
Want microwaved bird wild and free if the Gophers beat your team tonight

He held that parrot up by the ears
Security said, “son, you can’t bring that here.”
He searched fans’ faces frantically
Only Badgers did he see
He said, “How you people stand up for Barry?”
Badger backs all suck in the League.
Tell me, what are we s’posed to do?
Could have shared a mistress with Bo Ryan too.

So he laid Iago down, a charred wing fell to the ground
And I'll never forget the look on his face when he said
Don’t forget these eyes of hate

Barry, why’d Chad nuke this bird? ‘Twas a felony
His name’s Iago, he really liked to fly
You’re the AD, Bare, and you raised a psychopath
Horseshoe been up your ass for a while
I know it’d make Iago smile
Want microwaved bird wild and free if the Gophers beat your team tonight

I knew I'd caught a glimpse of Iago’s love
He descended in flames from above
I knew that God had sent that little boy
Iago’s geist to inflame Badger fans and boil

Barry, why’d Chad nuke this bird? ‘Twas a felony
His name’s Iago, he really liked to fly
You’re the AD, Bare, and you raised a psychopath
Horseshoe been up your ass for a while
I know it’d make Iago smile
Want microwaved bird wild and free if the Gophers beat your team tonight

I want him to be wild and free so he can exact vengeance tonight

Fleck Could Use Hair Extensions but Got a Different Kind Instead

Good morning, Gopher fans. Things sure are astir on the Twittersphere and Gophertronz with the news of Coach Fleck’s contract extension. It’s a one-year extension, team, so I have zero idea why people are freaking out about this. First, extending him through the end of January 2023 gives Fleck the opportunity to tell recruits that he’s contracted to be their coach through their entire tenure as students (of course, given the dynamics of the carousel of college football coaching, that assurance is worth less than the cumulative lifetime ad revenue generated by SGH, but that’s a discussion for a different day). 

This addresses the question of why do it now, after getting pantsed by the Nerds and likely getting pureed by the team from the East: you can pretty safely bet Fleck will have the plane gassed up and on the runway for recruiting visits within 90 minutes of helping the team re-atomize themselves after being reduced to quarks on Saturday. It may not be a big deal to me or you, but optically it’s an important selling point Fleck can take on the road with him now that wouldn’t be there but for today’s announcement. And we need all the selling points we can get at this point. The timing of this is hugely important given the new early signing period – the less reason our top recruits have to bail, the better. AND, he can make many of the same assurances to the 2019 class (hey, Hank!), the recruiting of which will begin in earnest next week (yo, Max!). 

Monday, November 20, 2017

So...yeah

Not great, huh? After Nebraska it kinda, sorta felt like we might have a workable approach on offense. Yeah, we didn't pass the ball much, but the Hydra of Croft, Smith, Kobe and Brooks could generate enough rushing yards to mitigate the flaccidity of our abilities to put the ball in the air.

Not so much. I'm not going to spend a ton of time breaking down what happened against Northwestern, because it can be summed up with any of "ignominious defeat of the highest order," "straight up trash panda" or "I'd rather drink gasoline and stick a flaming sword in my belly, so my insides shoot out my back like I was a Roman candle." It was one of the worst games I've ever watched in every facet.