Gophers have 13 TDs through two games; Preston Jelen might be their favorite

Preston Jalen will not win the Heisman Trophy. Nor will you find his name on any All-Big Ten team unless it has “Academic” in its title. And no, he’s not likely to be drafted in the NFL’s first round.

However, Jelen brings plenty of intangibles to the Gophers, who will try to improve their record to 3-0 in Saturday’s home game against Colorado. On a team that coach PJ Fleck called the most connected in his six seasons in Minnesota, Jelen, a running back and special teams standout, stands out as the connector.

Need proof? Just look at the reaction of Yellen, a junior fifth-grader, scoring his first career touchdown last week on a 30-yard run in the fourth quarter of the Gophers’ 62-10 win over Western Illinois.

From the jubilation of veterans Tanner Morgan, Tyler Nubin and Chris Outman-Bell to newcomers Quinn Carroll and Chuck Filiaga, the exhilarating sideline celebration of the former running back’s TD run is destined to be one of the best moments of the Gophers’ season.

“The emotion went through me in the press box when I saw it happen. It really happened,” Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Chiarocca said. “I’m getting emotional right now thinking about it. …He’s had to deal with a lot of adversity and he’s responded in a positive way in every way.”

Jelen was also emotional when he saw the reception.

“It was hard to stop smiling,” the Pryor Lake native said. “All the guys are waiting there and everyone had a smile on their face. It was a moment I will never forget.”

His teammates’ reactions were rooted in the adversity Yellen has endured, the latest of which came during training camp in 2021 when he suffered a torn ACL in his knee, plus meniscus tears. He needed surgery last September to repair the damage and a second surgery in April as a cleanup procedure. Add in surgery to repair torn ligaments in his foot during his freshman year, and Jelen has dealt with a lot.

“He’s such an important guy on this football team, not just as a player,” Fleck said. “He overcame a lot with his surgeries. He’s an amazing person.”

‘Fortune favors the brave’

Jelen playing for the Gophers can be traced back to his days at Prior Lake High School, where coach Matt Gegenheimer used the motto “Fortune favors the brave” as a motivational tactic for the Lakers. Jelen, a finalist for the Minnesota Mr. Football , received interest from some NCAA Division II programs, but was targeting the Gophers.

“He always hoped to play for Minnesota, and he knew what he was up against when he went there,” Gegenheimer said. “He’s the type of kid who won’t take no for an answer.”

When Fleck offered a roster spot as a preferred contributor, Jelen accepted.

“I wanted to bet on myself,” Yellen said. “It was the best decision I could have made.”

Jelen made his mark during practices in 2018, being named the Special Teams Player of the Year. He had three tackles in 2019 and excelled on special teams in 2020, blocking a punt against Michigan.

Building a career

In high school, Jelen had elbow and ankle injuries that required surgery, and that led him to consider a career involving orthopedic surgery.

“I’ve always had some interest in medicine, but that first surgery my freshman year in high school really sparked that interest,” he said. “And then obviously the extras just validated that passion. I’ve had so many great surgeons and doctors help me get back to what I love, and I want to be that person for other young athletes.”

Jelen received her bachelor’s degree in human physiology with a minor in chemistry in May and is working on a medical industry program at the Carlson School of Management. Took the MCAT exam and will eventually apply to medical school. He is also a three-time Academic All-Big Ten selection.

Fleck joked that he would have four appointments with Yellen for future knee and shoulder replacement surgeries.

It leaves its mark

Before embarking on a medical career, Yellen has soccer to play and a team to manage. He is fourth in the pecking order at a Gophers running back and has two carries for 32 yards.

On his touchdown run, Jelen took a handoff from quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, found a seam from right tackle, then cut back left, going high over a would-be pick and past a Leathernecks defensive back and into the end zone.

“There was a big opening on the left side and I was like, ‘Please make a cut.’ Please make a cut,” wide receiver Mike Brown-Stevens said. “He made the cut, got into the end zone and had one guy to just run through. It was so inspiring, just to see someone who had overcome so much.”

On Saturday against Colorado, Yellen won’t be the first quarterback off the bench and may not get a carry, depending on how the game plays out. Still, his coach knows his worth.

“He’s going to have a lot more success in his life outside of football than he did in football,” Fleck said. “But he loves being in a team, he loves being around the boys, he loves the culture. He’s everything you want in a guy on this football team.”

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