Get to know the Minnesota Gophers: New coach, new quarterback, one inspiring linebacker

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Randy Johnson covers the Minnesota Golden Gophers football team for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. He posed five questions to HawkCentral beat writer Mark Emmert about Saturday's Minnesota-Iowa showdown. Those are here.

Johnson was kind of enough to reciprocate by sharing his insights into this year's Gophers squad, which is 4-3 under first-year coach P.J. Fleck. Read on:

P.J. Fleck leads the Minnesota Golden Gophers onto the field just like he did at Western Michigan, his players following oars in hand.

Question: P.J. Fleck seems like a master salesman when it comes to drumming up interest in a program that operates in the shadow of the Minnesota Vikings. Have you sensed that people in the Twin Cities are getting more invested in Gopher football? If so, in what ways do you see that playing out?

Answer: I sense a mixture of curiosity and caution with fans in the Twin Cities. You’ll always have the Gophers die-hards in the season-ticket base, but attracting the casual fan is the difficult part, especially with so many other options for sporting events here. Attendance hasn’t been great — an announced average of 44,649 — but a lot has to do with having Buffalo and Middle Tennessee as the two nonconference home opponents. The losses to Maryland and Purdue also have hurt momentum in attracting more fans. Fleck is building the program from the ground up his way, and that has ruffled some feathers of those who were expecting a nine-win season. Also, the fact that Fleck is selling his program reminds some people too much of Tim Brewster, the failed former Gophers coach. Fleck, though, has a much better track record than Brewster, and his time at Western Michigan shows that.

Q: Minnesota is an extremely young team and will be playing on the road for only the third time. What have you noticed about the Gophers’ ability to maintain their poise in those situations? Where has the inexperience showed up the most?

A: At Oregon State, the Gophers likely played their most complete game in that 48-14 romp, which probably says a lot about how bad the Beavers were, too. At Purdue, Minnesota showed some resiliency by marching down the field after the long lightning delay to take the lead with 2:26 to play. The problem in that game was a secondary that was missing three starters late because of injuries or suspensions, and Purdue responded right away with a TD drive and then got a pick-six to seal it. The inexperience has showed up most in the secondary, at wide receiver and at QB, where Conor Rhoda entered the season with only one career start and Demry Croft had none.

Q: Demry Croft appears to be a classic dual-threat quarterback with a lot of upside. How much pressure is on him at this point in his career to make this offense go? How much did that three-game suspension set him back?

A: Croft showed a lot of promise after replacing Rhoda against Michigan State and passing for three fourth-quarter TDs to make a game of it. But against Illinois, he had a rough day, going 5-for-15 for 47 yards and throwing two bad interceptions. Fleck hasn’t announced Croft as the starter against Iowa, but his statements sure make it sound as if Croft will start. The suspension hurt Croft because it took him quite a while to earn back Fleck’s trust, and I’m not sure he’s got it back 100 percent.

Q: Linebacker Jonathan Celestin has one of the best back stories in college football. Can you briefly explain what he’s dealing with this fall, and what has impressed you the most about the way he’s handled himself. 

A: Celestin’s father, Frederick, was struck and killed by an SUV in Georgia back in April, and his story has been remarkable. He’s the leader of this defense and has been playing with an injured elbow that requires a brace. Fleck raves about that leadership. When Celestin intercepted a pass and returned it for a touchdown late against Illinois, he pointed to the sky, dedicating the play to his father. And it was a touching moment to see Fleck take off his headset and point to the sky when Celestin returned to the sideline. Celestin pointed skyward again and got a big embrace from Fleck.

Q: Finally, a prediction. Who do you think wins Saturday and why?

A: I just think Iowa’s defense is going to be too much for the Gophers to handle, especially with Josey Jewell back in the lineup. If the Hawkeyes can stop the Gophers’ running game, they’ll make Minnesota pass, which hasn’t been pretty, except for sophomore receiver Tyler Johnson. The Gophers’ four wins have come against Buffalo, Oregon State, Middle Tennessee and Illinois. Iowa is much better than those teams. I’ll say Iowa 20, Minnesota 10.