P.J. Fleck: Gophers football’s strong retention rate a credit to Dinkytown Athletes

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The foundation of the Gophers football team is in place for the 2024 season.

Of Minnesota’s 22 starters from this season, six are departing seniors and only one (quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis) has exited via the NCAA transfer portal.

That leaves 15 returning starters (seven on offense, eight on defense). Most of the players in that group have announced they are coming back with help from the U’s name, image and likeness (NIL) collective, Dinkytown Athletes.

Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck said Thursday that level of success with the rampant amount of players nationwide entering the portal comes down to a few reasons.

“At the end of the day, you have to have full transparency, where they fit in the program, where they are, what you are looking for, who you are bringing in (via the portal), how many are you bringing in,” Fleck said on the Quick Lane Bowl media call. “Some guys are going to be able to accept that challenge and some aren’t.”

During the season, Fleck had challenged Gophers fans and Dinkytown Athletes to help create funds for players.

“Dinkytown (Athletes) has done a really good job of providing our student-athletes with a lot of support and should be congratulated on that,” Fleck said. “I love where we are at. We can always be better. We are way bigger than we were last year, making huge strides in that department, and we will continue to do that.”

The Gophers have had seven total transfers exit since the end of the season. Other than Kaliakmanis, only one other player was a contributor: running back Zach Evans. Two were freshmen and three were little-used reserves unlikely to play at any time.

Their departures create spaces for the U to add via the portal.

Kramer to start

With Kaliakmanis and true freshman third-string QB Drew Viotto in the portal, backup Cole Kramer is in line to start the bowl game.

“There is really no other option,” Fleck said. “I will say this, in a good way, Cole Kramer, has played a lot of football for us. … He’s been waiting for this opportunity for a long time, and really excited about his leadership and what he’s been able to do since he’s been here.”

The senior from Eden Prairie has played in 21 total games, primarily as a wildcat QB, since 2019. Kramer has played in two games this season (Louisiana and North Carolina), with two rushes for three yards and his only pass intercepted

Walk-on true freshman Max Shikenjanski will back up Kramer, and Fleck said there will be options for an emergency QB, if need be.

Bad memories

The scar left by the Gophers’ 14-10 upset home loss to Bowling Green in 2021 was bound to be pointed out given their matchup in the Quick Lane Bowl at Ford Field in Detroit on Dec. 26.

That spot was poked Thursday.

“I do remember the game very vividly — unfortunately,” Fleck said. “Got to give (Bowling Green) a lot of credit. We were a good football team. That was a good football team they came in here and beat. … That wasn’t a fluke. It was nothing like that. They came in and whooped us.”

Same message

Fleck spent Wednesday night visiting with top recruit Koi Perich in Esko; he’s a four-star safety who committed to Minnesota in June but is expected to visit Ohio State and Florida State before signing day on Dec. 20.

What’s the message in moments when pledges have wandering eyes?

“There is nothing new,” Fleck said. “I was with a guy yesterday. I got done talking to him. You know I can talk, and after 45 minutes I took a breath, then I was like, ‘That sounded like the first time I ever talked to you, didn’t it? This is like the 50th time I said the same thing.’ ”

Fleck wants to reiterate why a player picked them. “Some people come in late, a new flashy shiny object — that happens,” Fleck said. “We’ve had that benefit us on our end. Just a reverse cycle. … You hope they value the things they say they value. You hope they rekindle that spirit of why they picked you. And I hope they stay true to that.”

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