MINNEAPOLIS -- Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck on Monday would not divulge an estimated number of Minnesota players affected by COVID-19 going into Saturday’s season opener against Michigan.
“I know the number; I’m just not going to tell you the number,” Fleck said in a video conference call with reporters. He later added, “I don’t want you all to think we have 65 players out right now. That’s not what I’m saying.”
Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh was more precise in his media session on Monday, sharing no players were unavailable due to the coronavirus pandemic.
For weeks, Fleck has warned of impacts the pandemic could have of the Gophers’ roster over the next nine weeks. If a player tests positive, he is out for 21 days due to more-stringent Big Ten protocols; that could be three games.
That could mean players previously on the scout team quickly moving up the depth chart and maybe into starting roles. Scout-team players, mostly freshmen, have to understand and run the opponent’s offense or defense in practice and now have to stay on top of knowing what their team’s own scheme and game plan.
“That’s going to test them immediately on how much they’re dedicated to this,” Fleck said. “One, you’ve got to be in scout meetings. Two, you’ve also got to be keeping up with the game plan, keeping up with the installs, taking mental reps, getting in to watch more film of yourself and other people in your exact position when you’re not getting those first- and second-team reps. It presents those challenges.”
The effects of COVID-19 were felt elsewhere in the Big Ten on Monday, with Purdue coach Jeff Brohm confirming he tested positive and is expected to miss the Boilermakers’ opener against Iowa.
The Big Ten’s protocol is to call off team practices and games over a seven-day period if the team’s positivity rate is greater than 5% and the population’s positivity rate is greater than 7.5%. There is no indication the Gophers are approaching those levels.
“We have certain rules in the Big Ten we are following, but we feel like we’re doing everything in our program to keep our players safe, healthy, make sure that we mask up, practice social distancing,” Fleck said. “There’s a lot of different practice habits that we’ve changed, a lot of different protocols that have taken place that are different from the past. I think our staff is doing a great job as well of practicing all the right protocols that are in place in order for us to be able to have a healthy season.”
Three Friday games
The Big Ten has scheduled five Friday night games this season, and the Gophers will play in three of them. Their first will be in Week 2 against Maryland, which on Monday was announced for a 6:30 p.m. CT kickoff on ESPN on Oct. 30.
Fleck said he believed all Big Ten coaches were asked by school administrations about their willingness to play on Fridays
“I’m open to anything,” Fleck said. “I come from the Mid-American Conference as a player (Northern Illinois) and as a coach (Western Michigan). MAC-tion was Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, four-day weeks, nine-day weeks. We did it all. I’m very open for that.”
One concern Fleck has is having to prepare on short weeks. The Gophers-Terrapins game will have one less day to get ready next week, but Minnesota will have an added day before their game at Illinois on Nov. 7.
Iowa and Minnesota will have the same window of one less day of prep before their game Nov. 13 in Minneapolis.
The Gophers will then have a normal window to prepare for Purdue’s visit to Minneapolis on Nov. 20, while the Boilermakers will have one less day after playing Northwestern on the 14th.
The Gophers had been shutout from having a single players named in the nine-year history of the Big Ten’s preseason honor roll — until this year. Minnesota had quarterback Tanner Morgan and Rashod Bateman named to the five-player list for the West Division on Friday.
The others on the list were Northwestern linebacker Paddy Fisher, Purdue receiver Rondale Moore and Wisconsin linebacker Jack Sanborn.
The Wolverines had one player listed: defensive end Kwity Paye. The other four in the East were Penn State tight end Pat Freiermuth and three from Ohio State.
Fleck said the Gophers are exploring ways to honor legendary Star Tribune columnist Sid Hartman this season. Hartman passed away Sunday at age 100.