- Nov 19, 2012
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The B1G 10: PJ Fleck didn't need to seek out transfer QBs. He already has his man.Matt Hayes
Every Tuesday, Matt Hayes tackles the 10 hottest topics in the Big Ten …
1. The B1G StoryP.J. Fleck has been preaching for 2 years now about Athan Kaliakmanis.
The guy is different, he says. He’ll change everything you’ve known about Minnesota quarterbacks.
Then Fleck went out and proved it after the 2022 season. Not by what he did — but what he didn’t do.
Fleck didn’t add a quarterback from the transfer portal, opting to stay with Kaliakmanis, who had 3 TDs and 4 INTs as a freshman backup.
“Everybody got a chance to see Athan’s ability,” Fleck said. “We’ve seen it from Day 1.”
That’s what makes this season so intriguing at Minnesota. In 6 previous years under Fleck, Minnesota has been good enough to be an intriguing distraction in November — but not good enough at the most important position on the field to be more than that.
Now there’s 1 season remaining for divisions in the Big Ten, 1 last chance for Minnesota to win the West Division and advance to the Big Ten Championship Game for the first time in program history.
For the first time in Fleck’s time in Minneapolis, he has a quarterback who can stress defenses with arm talent, athletic ability, and a high football IQ.
It would’ve been easy for Fleck to add from the portal, to go all-in on a transfer who had big numbers as an FBS starter instead of trusting what he saw in Kaliakmanis from the moment he began recruiting him more than 3 years ago.
He has a prototype quarterback frame (6-4, 210 pounds), a live arm, and his ability to run a true run-pass option offense changed how the game was called — even with Kaliakmanis’ limited experience and comfort with the offense — over the last 6 weeks of the season.
Kaliakmanis got his first start at Penn State after Tanner Morgan sustained an upper body injury against Illinois. It was a 28-point loss, but he didn’t play that poorly.
Two weeks later at Nebraska, Morgan, having returned the previous week in a 31-0 win over Rutgers, was dinged again, this time leaving with the Gophers trailing by 10 points in the second half. Kaliakmanis led Minnesota to a come-from-behind road win, then played well as the starter the next week in a rout of Northwestern.
The staff then made the decision to focus on the run game against Iowa’s stout defense, and tried to protect Kaliakmanis from Iowa’s pass rush. The questionable decision in a 13-10 loss was rectified a week later against bitter rival Wisconsin.
Kaliakmanis went from completing 7-of-15 passes for 87 yards and 1 INT against Iowa to completing 19-of-29 for 319 yards and 2 TDs with 0 INTs against the Badgers in the season final. A month later against Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl, Kaliakmanis completed 7 of his first 9 passes — 6 of those completions for first downs — before injuring his ankle and missing the rest of the game.
Morgan was healthy and cleared to play against Syracuse, and finished the game. But that’s not the story.
This is: Fleck chose a freshman (Kaliakmanis) over his 6th year super senior quarterback (Morgan) — who started for Fleck since 2018 — because it was clear where the program was headed. And who was taking it there.
Do you really think Fleck was going to add a transfer portal quarterback this offseason to cloud the inevitable?
2. Change was imminentKaliakmanis was different from the moment he stepped on campus 2 years ago, the 1st blue-chip quarterback recruit landed by Fleck.
There has never been a question about the most talented quarterback on the roster. It was obvious with every throw, and every off-schedule throw or run.
But Morgan knew the system, knew line checks and had seen every defense, and all those critical nuances were second nature. When he walked to the line of scrimmage and saw pre-snap that the Gophers were in a bad play, he knew how to get them out of it and into something that could work.
Those intangibles are critical — and Kaliakmanis just wasn’t at that level of consumption of the offense.
“At first it was about giving him what he could handle, not giving him too much, too soon, ” Fleck said. “There were times when we thought, ‘we can’t give that to him because he’s not ready for that piece yet.’ ”
Then Morgan got hurt, and Kaliakmanis was forced to play — and like most elite players forced into action, Kaliakmanis embraced the spotlight.
Now he’s the projected starter from the start of the offseason. He’ll run offseason workouts, and he’ll get 1st team reps in 15 spring practices. He’ll work all summer with receivers, and enter the 4 weeks of fall camp as the unquestioned leader of the offense.
It’s his team, his time. Minnesota, everyone, has a blue-chip quarterback.
3. The different QB, The EpilogueFleck didn’t add a quarterback from the portal this offseason, but he did everything he could to make it easier this fall for Kaliakmanis.
He added receivers Elijah Spencer (Charlotte) and Corey Crooms (Western Michigan), and running back Sean Spencer (Western Michigan) from the transfer portal — 3 players who combined to catch 126 passes for 1,868 yards and 15 TDs, and also rush for 1,027 yards and 7 TDs.
He elevated Greg Harbaugh Jr. and Matt Simon from the staff to bigger roles in the offense: The co-coordinators will coach quarterbacks (Harbaugh) and call plays (Simon). Same system, same coaches, smooth transition.
The play of Kaliakmanis over the last month of the season dictated it, and the potential of the 2023 season demanded it. It was an easy decision after watching Kaliakmanis pull 2 run options on RPO plays, and throw 2 touchdown passes into tight windows against Wisconsin.
Or throw 6 completions for first downs in less than 2 quarters of play against Syracuse. This is the future for Minnesota.
It might just translate to the Gophers’ first Big Ten West title.
The B1G 10: PJ Fleck didn't need to seek out transfer QBs. He already has his man.
Matt Hayes' weekly trek around the Big Ten checks in on Minnesota's quarterback situation, gets the B1G's basketball coaches in the mix and adds the usual rankings, scouting, quotes and more.