Gophers receivers coach Matt Simon has an unopened, room-temperature can of A&W Root Beer sitting on his desk inside the Larson Football Performance Center. It’s a prop, not a thirst-quencher.
Riffing off head coach P.J. Fleck’s array of slogans and acronyms, Simon came up with “actions over words” formula for what he wants from his position group during the 2021 season. He gave each receiver a can of A&W to serve as a reminder.
“Our actions are going to be way more important than our words,” Simon said in an training-camp interview with the Pioneer Press. “Yes, people are going to talk about us as a group and … try to put labels on us, on how young we are or what we maybe haven’t accomplished. We can say we’ve changed, but at the end of the day, that doesn’t (do it).”
Through two games, there have been more words than actions when it comes to the U’s receivers. Minnesota abandoned the passing game in the second half of the 31-26 win over Miami (Ohio) last Saturday; they had six third-quarter passes fall incomplete and didn’t attempt a throw in the fourth.
The Gophers have run the ball on nearly 70 percent of offensive plays this season and will likely need more balance against Pac-12 Conference foe Colorado (1-1) at noon Saturday at Folsom Field in Boulder.
Minnesota lost only one offensive starter from last season, and it was a big one: first-round NFL pick Rashod Bateman. They had Tyler Jonson go to the league after 2019 and current top target, Chris Autman-Bell, went down with an ankle injury in camp. It has kept “CrAB” sidelined for the first two games.
This has meant veteran quarterback Tanner Morgan has had to find new or lesser-known targets, and they’ve gotten off to a slow start.
Texas A&M transfer Dylan Wright has had 15 targets, eight catches for 130 yards and two touchdowns in two games. But in the third quarter against Miami, Wright slipped on a route and Morgan’s pass fell incomplete. Wright received medical attention and was held out of the game, but it wasn’t so much a physical injury as a mental hurdle.
“I think we have to continue to build … that mental toughness,” Fleck said on the topic postgame. “We were really good in 2019 mentally, but if you go back to 2018 and 2017, with Tyler and Rashod, we had a lot of drops and a lot of different (issues with) inconsistent play.”
Wright is expected to return Saturday, while Autman-Bell appears likely to make his season debut. It could be a boost for a passing offense that is outside the top 100 in the nation in yards per game (158), completion percentage (52.4) and total attempts (42).
While the body of work hasn’t been complete, there have been successes. Wright, who’s first name is pronounced Day-lynn, had an impressive leaping touchdown catch in tight coverage against Ohio State in a season opening, 45-31 loss. It was the first TD catch of his career.
Daniel Jackson, a four-star recruit and second-year player from Kansas, has seven receptions for 88 yards on 12 targets. He scored his first collegiate touchdown against Miami and afterward, Morgan had a message for him in the end zone: “It’s the first of many.”
“It’s a cool moment to celebrate it,” said Morgan, who’s next TD pass will be the 50th of his career. “But at the same time, it’s a part of the game. You have to keep going.”
On Tuesday, Fleck clarified his “mental toughness” postgame quote.
“I’m talking about just overcoming adversity, next-play mentality, being able to not flush the last play and forget about it, learn from it immediately and then move on,” the coach said. “I’m not about ignoring what happened, never been about that. … The minute that play is over, ‘What did I learn? What did I gather? Boom, got it, next play, let’s go.’
“That’s with young players in general. The faster they can get better at that, the better they’re going to be.”
Morgan has been working to stay positive with the receivers, knowing he wasn’t an all-Big Ten caliber quarterback when he got his first action in 2018.
Compared to January, Fleck has been impressed with how quickly Wright, listed at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, has improved since joining the program. While he was a four-star recruit out of Texas and went to the SEC, he was raw in the eyes of Fleck.
“There was no way when that kid came on campus in January I thought he would ever play this year,” Fleck said on his KFAN radio show. “That is a credit to Matt Simon, Mike Sanford for the development of him to where he is now. I think he’s one of the better ones we’ve had.”
Autman-Bell is on track to be the Gophers’ next star receiver and has shown good chemistry with Morgan. Hel has caught at least one pass in 32 career games, with a grab in 27 straight. He should be the go-to possession receiver once he comes back.
Before the Miami game, Autman-Bell warmed up as if he would play but returned to the locker room before kickoff to change into street clothes. Since Saturday, he has been participating in practice, Fleck said.
The Buffaloes, who held No. 7 Texas A&M until a late touchdown in a 10-7 loss in Denver last week, will likely force Minnesota to pass. If they can can air it out successfully, Simon might mention a certain root beer brand postgame.