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Fleck, Gophers on New Recruiting Track

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March 29, 2017

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It’s early in the 2018 recruiting process but coach P.J. Fleck has Gophers’ football recruiting headed in a new direction. High school players from the class of 2018 can’t sign National Letters of Intent with Minnesota or other schools until next February, but they can make verbal commitments. An early look at Minnesota’s commitments list offers a contrast with what fans saw during the Jerry KillTracy Claeys era from 2011-2016.

Fleck, who left Western Michigan in early January to become head coach of the Gophers, has verbal commitments from seven high school players so far—a total that exceeds what many Power Five conference programs have. A year ago on this date the Gophers didn’t have a single commitment, an indication of the aggressive recruiting by Fleck and his assistants.

In past years Minnesota pursued and often signed players who were two and three star players. Frequently the Gophers’ competition for recruits in past years came from the “have-nots” of college football—schools like Ball State, Colorado State or Louisiana Tech.

P.J. Fleck

Contrast that with players Fleck has commitments from so far. Collectively they have impressed various football recruiting authorities, and Minnesota’s 2018 class has a No. 15 national composite ranking by 247Sports. If by Signing Day next February Fleck can hold anything near that No. 15 spot, it will be a big difference from Minnesota’s No. 56 composite ranking of its 2017 class.

“The expectation from his staff is to have a top 25 recruiting class in 2018 and that’s something that hasn’t happened here in a long time,” said Ryan Burns, the recruiting authority from GopherIllustrated.com.

Fleck and his assistants are chasing and in some instances gaining commitments from players who have offers from prominent football schools like Michigan State and Oklahoma. Among those who have verbally committed is Chicago defensive tackle Elijah Teague who earlier this year said he wanted to be a Gopher.

“He (Fleck) has arguably the best defensive tackle in Illinois coming here,” Burns said. “He had quite the offer list from Oklahoma, South Carolina—anywhere and everywhere he wanted to go—and it wasn’t even March yet.”

Burns said a recruiting expert who covers Ohio preps believes Gophers commit Brennan Armstrong is the best class of 2018 quarterback in the Buckeye state. The Gophers made Armstrong a recruiting priority and got to him early, according to Burns. “They got him to campus and they were able to seal the deal,” he added.

Jaylen Mayfield, a prize offensive tackle from Grand Rapids, Michigan, initially made a verbal commitment to Minnesota, but now has backed off after recently being pursued by the Michigan Wolverines. “That’s going to be an interesting battle for P.J.,” Burns said before Mayfield de-committed. “A Michigan kid, a Grand Rapids kid, (who) gets an Ann Arbor offer. Someone I don’t know that he (Fleck) is going to be able to hang on to. But he’s a very athletic kid that they need on the offensive line.”

The early recruiting success by Fleck and his assistants didn’t sneak up on Burns. “I am not surprised at all,” Burns said. “I knew that when P.J. took over at Minnesota that there was going to be a bump in the recruiting rankings. It’s what his M.O. had been at Western Michigan.

“He had the top rated recruiting class, according to Scout.com, all four years he was in the MAC (Mid-American Conference), and it showed. His first year he went 1-11. His final year he ends up going 13-1, so it’s a correlation between if you’re higher in the recruiting rankings. …”

The 36-year-old Fleck and his extroverted personality received a lot of attention at Western Michigan. National media, including Sports Illustrated, wrote about his energy and passion as he rebuilt the Broncos. Western Michigan was 13-0 last season before losing in the Cotton Bowl to Wisconsin, 24-16.

At Minnesota, Fleck and his staff have many more resources than at their former home in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The “sales kit” includes the Big Ten brand, a unique college town in Minneapolis, varied academic offerings at the University of Minnesota, post-graduate job opportunities in the metro area including with Fortune 500 companies, new playing and training facilities, and the chance to sign on with a program that Fleck claims is going places.

Ryan Burns

“As long as P.J. Fleck is going to be here, people are going to be interested because he is so unique in the college football scene,” Burns said. “He’s so young. He’s got a lot of things to sell with his energy, including playing time with the number of positions they’re going to have to replace here at Minnesota in the near future. …”

Fleck inherits a roster that both now and next season has depth issues. The depth problem is partially caused by missed recruiting opportunities in the past. But it is further impacted by players leaving under Fleck whose style can cause attrition.

Fleck’s intense ways and warp-speed culture, including frenzied practices, aren’t for everyone. He said the other day that in his second year at Western Michigan “close to 21 players” left his program and during spring football he had only about 40 players participating in drills. Yet, Fleck insisted that eventually he will build two-deep quality at various positions with the Gophers.

“There’s always going to be people that leave the program,” Fleck said. “There’s (also) always going to be people that love it and stay. It’s just so different (his football environment) and so new. …We gotta get our numbers up (at Minnesota) over the next few years.”

Fleck had about 150 high school juniors watching practice last Saturday. Burns said there is so much interest in the Gophers that high school players from faraway states like Georgia are paying their own expenses to check out the Minnesota football program. Burns added it’s all part of an intense recruiting plan where Fleck will target having all his 2018 recruits verbally committed prior to the opening game on August 31 against Buffalo.

Burns estimated about 75 percent of high school players who originally make a verbal commitment to a school actually keep their pledge and sign National Letters of Intent. He thinks Fleck’s percentage at Minnesota could turn out to be 90 percent. “He does a very good job of keeping his verbals,” Burns said. “Once you buy into P.J. Fleck, he is going to make sure he does everything in his power to keep you there.”

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers.

Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section.

A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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