Commander of the trenches
Saturday’s spring game for the University of Minnesota’s football program was the official start for the P.J. Fleck era as the Gophers head coach.
For former Owatonna standout Andrew Stelter, it was the final time – barring any injuries in fall camp that could enable the use of a medical redshirt – that he will throw on the maroon and gold to cap spring practices. Although, when asked he simply said he was focused on competing.
“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” commented Stelter inside TCF Bank Stadium Saturday. “Like I knew coming in, this could be last one, so I just wanted to go out, make the most of it, just take everything in, the fans; we had a great turnout for the fans. They were awesome today.”
He immediately added, “I’m just trying to learn the new system as much as I can, see where I fit in and just go full out every day to just do what I can for the defense.”
Stelter, who was rated the No. 4 recruit in the state of Minnesota by ESPN in 2013, has been able to find success throughout his career for the Gophers, despite the turnovers within the coaching staff. In his three years, he has seen former head coaches Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys leave the program.
Kill turned the job over to longtime assistant Claeys due to health concerns in 2014. Claeys was fired by the University in January amid the investigation and his public support of a player boycott after initially agreeing with the school’s discipline of several players.
No matter who was the coach his first three years, the 6-foot-4-inch, 290-pound defensive tackle was always ready to play.
And he played well.
Stelter has never missed a game due to injury, playing in all 38 games and starting 12 of them. As a freshman, he saw action in 12 games and recorded three tackles. His sophomore season – statistically his best as a Gopher – Stelter started seven games and against then nationally-ranked Iowa, posted a career high with five tackles in the Gophers’ 40-35 loss.
As a junior, while his starts and stats dipped lower than the previous season, Stelter became a mainstay within the Gophers’ 3-4 front against the run under then defensive line coach Jeff Phelps. In the season opener against Oregon State, he registered his first college sack.
An even more impressive feat is that the Kinesiology major received a selection to the Academic All-Big Ten squad both seasons. Owatonna High School’s head football coach Jeff Williams noted that his former player’s success doesn’t come as a surprise.
“He’s mature beyond his years,” added Williams in an interview Thursday. “He’s a great student, hard worker, he was three-sport athlete; we’re just so proud of the kind of kid that he is.”
Heading into his senior season, Stelter finds himself with not only a new head coach in Fleck, but a new defensive coordinator in Robb Smith and new position coach in Bryce Paup. With the change from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3, Stelter noted that as defensive lineman, the job description stays the same, but with a little bit more freedom.
“It depends on what the call is, what the scheme for the certain team we’re going to be playing but there will be a little bit more freedom I would say in this defense compared to other ones,” he said. “They’re going to let us two-gap if we can, but sometimes just got out and take on double-teams, it’s kind a of rough, but it’s part of the job description. But, if we can make a play they want us to make a play. It’s fun to have that freedom and know that they have confidence in you too.”
Running with the first-team defense for much of the scrimmage, Stelter did exactly that often splitting double-teams or even holding his ground long enough to free up the linebackers behind him. Fans in attendance may have heard his name called once or twice, but in a game that, in terms of schemes was as basic as they come, he nailed his part down to the last detail.
While Stelter has been almost an immovable object against the run, he noted that the one area he is continually trying to refine is his pass rushing ability.
“I’m still not where I need to be, but I feel like I’m taking steps in the right direction, hopefully I’ll get it figured out by the fall,” he added.
Prior to committing to the Gophers, Stelter set the single-season sack record for OHS, recording 12 as a junior. He also holds the career sack record for the school. In his three years at Minnesota, he has registered just 1.5 sacks, both coming as a junior. Williams noted that with his work ethic and demeanor, the refinement should be no problem for the defensive tackle because he’s so coachable.
“He’ll be a sponge because that’s the type of kid he is,” he added. “He wants to be successful and he’ll do whatever you ask him to do to get the job done.”
With spring practices officially over, the team will presumably revert back to offseason conditioning prior to the start of the summer conditioning program where the efforts will now be focused on starting the “Elite Era” under Fleck 1-0 with a win against Buffalo on August 31.
No matter how his final season for the Gophers turns out, Stelter noted that looking back, he’s been grateful of all the support he’s receive from his hometown adding, “Whenever I go home, I always have people come up to me and say, ‘great job. We love the way your represent us and that just makes me like I’m doing the right thing and I’m in the right place.”
Stelter and the Golden Gophers will open up the season at home against Buffalo, on August 31.