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How P.J. Fleck’s ‘most-committed’ team unwinds off the field

Head coach P.J. Fleck has referred to the 2022 version as “probably the most-committed” squad across his six seasons at the helm.

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck runs with his team during a practice drill in Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex in Minneapolis on March 23. Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck runs with his team during a practice drill in Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex in Minneapolis on March 23.
Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press
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It’s that time of year again, when football coaches and players talk about how they’re bigger, faster and stronger than they were a season ago.

For the Gophers football team this preseason, it’s a little different. While improvements in those physical attributes are also claimed by the program, head coach P.J. Fleck has referred to the 2022 version as “probably the most-committed” squad across his six seasons at the helm.

“This team is fully committed to each other, and it’s been fun to watch,” Fleck said in late July at Big Ten Media Days in Indianapolis. “You get that vibe when you go down and watch them work (over the summer). You can kind of weed through all the other things that don’t matter and get right to the heart of what matters with this football team, and that’s what I appreciate about them. They don’t have any time for silliness. They go right in, get their work done and get better.”

But similar to how Minnesota’s offense needs to pass the ball more in 2022, players and coaches benefit from some balance. When Tanner Morgan struggled at times in 2021, he would lean on the fact that his identity is about more than college football. The 23-year-old quarterback now in his sixth season has found strength in his faith in God; he got married to fiancée Sarah this summer; and he also tries to mix in a few rounds of golf when he can.

When training camp began Monday, the last of the summer respites came to a close. It’s pretty much all football and school. A few Gophers shared what they are up to off the field:

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OFF RUNNING

For years, Fleck’s routine was a predawn morning run. It was the refuge he set aside for himself, an opportunity to release tension and stress, think clearly and generate ideas before the program’s CEO is pulled in many directions during the work day.

But Fleck, who played college football at Northern Illinois and briefly for the San Francisco 49ers, has dealt with persistent issues in his lower back.

“There are times as you get older and you are running, running and (then) you can’t get out of bed,” Fleck said. “You’re like, ‘Ugh.’ And you’re in your 30s, you’re like, ‘Oh no.’

That prompted a switch to cycling. Fleck, now 41, said he now logs 10 to 20 miles a day on his Trek road bike. “It’s my time,” he shared.

Fleck said one of first cycling excursions came with a U donor on the A1A highway in South Florida. After they rode 12 miles down the scenic road, Fleck thought the workout was done.

“He goes, ‘Well, let’s turn around,’ ” Fleck recalled. “’We’re going back?’ I thought they were going to need to tie a rope to me and just pull me in like a boat that is destroyed. That’s how I got into it. He dropped me off at his house and took off for another 20 (miles).”

Fleck hasn’t fully given up on running, though. He expressed a desire to do triathlons.

LET’S EAT

Linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin’s love for food started at a young age. His mother, Katrina, is of German heritage, but she learned recipes from her husband Mariano’s Cuban background.

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Mariano said his favorites are his mom’s Cuban pork, Cuban shredded beef or her chicken soup. “Hearty meals that, looking back on it, were always there,” he said.

That love for food continued when the Illinois native moved to Minnesota and started exploring the Twin Cities restaurant scene. He has come up with a list of more than 100 eateries, and ranked them.

“Minneapolis is an incredible city for food,” Sori-Marin said. “There are so many diverse groups of people that reside in Minneapolis, and you can get so many different types of food.”

Sori-Marin likes a good walleye straight from a Minnesota lake and also mentioned some of his favorite establishments such as Bar La Grassa, Billy Sushi and Smack Shack.

But what’s No. 1 on the list?

“I say my favorite restaurant is El Cubano (in St. Paul), just because I have a special place in my heart for Cuban food,” Sori-Marin said. “But there are so many places I can rattle off.”

BIG GUY, LITTLE KITTY

There is a stark juxtaposition when it comes to Trill Carter. The 6-foot-2, 300-pound defensive tackle must be gritty and aggressive on the field to fight off double teams from opposing offensive lines, but he’s got a softer side back at his apartment.

The Georgia native became a cat dad to Turbo last year.

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Carter said being a pet owner can be a big responsibility. “He’s getting bigger every day,” Carter said. “It’s like taking care of a child.”

STRIKE!

Gophers sophomore cornerback Justin Walley has bonded with new transfer corners Ryan Stapp and Beanie Bishop.

“They are both two great guys — on and off the field,” Walley said in mid-July. “They are two of my closest friends off the field. We do a lot of stuff together.”

They have bonded over bowling. Walley said he took a bowling class and has gotten to be pretty good.

“My first day of bowling class, I rolled a 60-something,” he said. “Then by the end of it, I rolled a 201, 202. I got pretty high.”

Walley moved north from Mississippi and said he was pleasantly surprised that Minnesota summers weren’t “40, 50 degrees.” The southern fisherman took to Twitter in June, making a request for fishing spots around Minneapolis.

Walley said he ended up going to Detroit Lakes, where he caught a “nice-sized” northern pike. He quickly whipped out his phone to show reporters a picture of it. “I was pretty happy,” he said.

‘PRETTY BOY’

Chris Autman-Bell said one of his biggest takeaways after five full years at Minnesota is “knowing that I’m not just a football player. I’m a human as well.” He briefly paused. “I’m a human first.”

So what has this particular homo sapien been up to this summer?

“I really fell in love with being out on the lake,” Autman-Bell said. “I’m not going to lie to you: I don’t get in the water. But I like getting on the boat and flying around on the boat. …”

But why not take a dip?

“It depends. I don’t want to get my hair wet sometimes,” he admitted. “I’m a pretty boy here and there. I do get in. I just float up with a vest on. Whenever I go on the boat with (tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford), we literally just go in the water and float with our vests and just talk and just sit there and look out at the lake and just be weird. That’s pretty much what we do.”

Spann-Ford reinforced Autman-Bell’s “pretty boy” self-description, and added he has brought “CrAB” and other teammates such as Mo Ibrahim, Braelen Oliver and Bryce Williams up to his family’s home in St. Cloud. Some traveled to his nephew’s birthday party and they’ve eaten batches of chocolate chip cookies made by his mother, JaQueline Ford.

“It’s great to have them up,” Spann-Ford said.

On top of being cast as the most-committed team, Spann-Ford said Fleck also has “been adamant” on players about being together.

“At the end of the day, a more connected team is a more dangerous team when you’re playing on Saturdays,” the tight end said. “That’s really where it starts.”

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