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Gophers' Fleck ready to put new NCAA redshirt rule to work

MINNEAPOLIS — Big Ten football coaches had universal praise for a new NCAA eligibility rule during the conference's media days last week in Chicago. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck already has plans to use the relaxed rules on redshirt seasons.

"With as young a football team as we are, this is like a blessing that was just thrown to the University of Minnesota, 'Here, we're going to help you out this year,' " Fleck said Monday, July 23, from the Chicago Marriott Downtown hotel.

The new rule allows players to play in as many as four games without burning their redshirt season, which allows them to attend school and practice with the team for a year and still retain four years of eligibility.

"Brilliant. Love it. Greatest rule the NCAA has every put in in the last 20 years," Fleck said.

Previously, players would burn a redshirt year by playing in one game, although the NCAA often granted dispensation for season-ending injuries known as a "medical redshirt."

Minnesota has a total of nine seniors on offense and defense, with two more expected to play on special teams. This doesn't count running back Shannon Brooks, who in March was ruled out for the season with a leg injury. But as Fleck teased in Chicago, the senior could return under this new rule sometime this fall and still be able to use his final year of eligibility in 2019.

How college football coaches implement the new rule will be an interesting storyline throughout the 2018 season. It could be a nonconference tryout; it could be the late addition of promising player down the stretch. In either case, there is no penalty.

"We are going to have to use it very creatively," Fleck said. "I don't know how yet. We have had multiple meetings on how we are going to do it. You just can't really design exactly how you are going to do it until you start the season, with what type of issues, problems come up."

Big Ten coaches said using freshmen for four late games could provide valuable depth when other players are hurt.

This season

The Gophers' 2018 recruiting class finished in the top half of the Big Ten and 38th in the nation, according to 247sports.com's composite team rankings. So, how many freshmen does Fleck envision using this fall?

"Most of them," he said. "Redshirt or true, at some time or place or some moment. Starters, backups, reserve, I just don't know."

Four-star receiver Rashod Bateman is at the top of the list. The Georgia product spurned interest from the home-state Bulldogs and other SEC schools to come to Minnesota. He and redshirt freshmen receivers Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas are the prime candidates to round out the receiving corps around junior standard-bearer Tyler Johnson.

Here are other freshmen who could play four games (or more) this fall:

  • Defensive tackle Elijah Teague will be counted on to play a position that's seen a lot of turnover from 2017. The 6-foot-3, 305-pound player from South Holland, Ill., also has a distinct chance to have his redshirt removed entirely.
  • Running backs Bryce Williams and Nolan Edmonds are candidates to spell workhorse senior Rodney Smith, especially with Brooks rehabbing. In Chicago, Smith said Williams "will be a monster one day" and Edmonds has the work ethic to contribute.
  • Defensive backs Benny Sapp III of Eden Prairie and Josh Aune of St. Paul could provide depth in a shorthanded secondary, particularly at safety, one of the Gophers' primary concerns going into 2018.
  • Offensive linemen Daniel Faalele and Curtis Dunlap from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., are also in the mix. They were backups when they enrolled early in January but could be strong enough to face the rigors of the Big Ten trenches.
  • Under the old rules, an underdeveloped freshmen would often be classified as a redshirt after fall camp and asked to focus on workouts and contribute on the scout team.

"That kid might check out the rest of the year," Fleck said. "He might not be all in mentally. ... Now, he's got to always be on his toes because I could end up saying, 'I'm going to play you.' It creates focus on the team."

Last season

The Gophers could have used a jolt, even a temporary one, from a few true freshmen during last year's 5-7 season.

Fleck is a believer in not sacrificing the future for a quick fix, and he held true to that in 2017 by taking the redshirt off of only three of 25 freshmen. There were strong temptations with guard Blaise Andries, cornerback Rey Estes and defensive end Esezi Otomewo, but they still have four years of eligibility left.

Defensive lineman Nate Umlor played from the start, totaling 11 tackles in 11 games, while cornerback Justus Harris had eight tackles when he came into three games. Douglas had 11 receptions for 83 yards in non-conference play before suffering leg injuries and not playing again in 2018, but he received a medical redshirt and still has four years of eligibility.

Autman-Bell broke his foot in fall camp and was redshirted but under the new rule could have filled in late, and earned valuable experience, after Johnson broke his hand in November.

But this what-could-have-been scenario is most relevant to redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan, who could have gained experience late after Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft struggled. He is now the front-runner for the starting job without a single college football snap to his name.

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