P.J. Fleck Reeling in Hyped Reruits
It sounds improbable but indefatigable P.J. Fleck will likely have an extra bounce in his step tomorrow when announcing his 26-man 2018 recruiting class. The first-year University of Minnesota head football coach and his staff will land a group on National Signing Day that recruiting evaluators believe is the school’s best this decade and could rank No. 1 in the Big Ten West Division.
Ryan Burns, the college football recruiting authority and publisher of GopherIllustrated.com, has studied Fleck’s recruits all year. “This is a different kind of recruiting class,” he told Sports Headliners during an interview last weekend.
Burns said the 24 high school and two junior college student-athletes expected to sign their paperwork committing them to the Gophers were pursued by more Power Five Conference schools than the 2013-2017 Minnesota recruiting classes combined. That’s an indication of the quality, he said, of Fleck’s 2018 class, that so many of the players were also recruited by schools from the ACC, Big-12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC conferences.
“That’s a big deal,” Burns said. “For people who say P.J. is all smoke and mirrors, I don’t know how you can say that (now).”
Fleck, 37, came to Minnesota last January from Western Michigan with a reputation for recruiting and being one of college football’s rising stars among coaches. It certainly looks like Fleck, with his energy and ability to woo teenagers in person and via social media, is living up to his brand as a salesman. Fleck also has a staff of assistants who are known for their recruiting prowess, including Matt Simon and Ed Warinner.
Recruiting authorities like Rivals.com use a star system to label prep and junior college prospects. 247Sports analyzes information from other recruiting services and offers composite rankings. As of today, the Gophers have a 247Sports composite ranking of No. 28 in the country. Rivals.com ranks the Minnesota class No. 27.
Ohio State is ranked No. 1 nationally by 247Sports. Five of 14 Big Ten programs, including Ohio State, are ahead of Minnesota but all are from the Big Ten’s East Division. Wisconsin, the 2017 West Division champion, is No. 2 in the division rankings at No. 33.
There have long been skeptics about how much credibility there is in recruiting rankings. It’s obviously not a perfect predictor of a team’s future success but many of college football’s best programs—from Alabama to Washington—often are top-ranked in the recruiting game.
The Gophers need better talent to catch the Badgers, not just in the 2018 class but beyond. From a division perspective, they’re also looking up at a Northwestern team that finished 9-4 overall last season and has won seven consecutive Big Ten games. Iowa is always competitive and sometimes rises up for a breakthrough year like 2015 when the Hawkeyes earned their way to the Rose Bowl.
Minnesota has plenty of work ahead to compete against the Badgers, Wildcats, Hawkeyes and the other teams in the West Division. Upgrading personnel is where it starts for Minnesota and in the Internet era of recruiting rankings, the Gophers’ 2018 class is second only to the school’s 2008 class.
In next year’s class the Gophers have four athletes who have been labeled four-star recruits and they play positions of priority for Fleck. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman, offensive guard Curtis Dunlap, offensive tackle Daniel Faalele and quarterback Victor Viramontes could all become impact players for Minnesota.
Bateman, from Tifton, Georgia, is one of 10 candidates for the American Family All-USA Offensive Player of the Year award reported on this fall in USA Today. “Rashod Bateman is the crown jewel of this (recruiting) class—someone that we have rated as the No. 200 player overall in the country,” said Burns whose website is affiliated with 247Sports. “He is a four-star (out of five) wide receiver, and for him being an out of state recruit to turn down four different SEC schools in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Ole Miss, that’s a really big deal. That hasn’t happened for Minnesota recruits in quite some time.”
The Gophers have been struggling to find quality and depth among their pass receivers for awhile now. Burns believes help is on the way, and not just with Bateman who he expects will compete for a starting position as a freshman.
Jornell Manns, from Mansfield, Ohio, caught over 30 touchdown passes as a senior and was a Mr. Football candidate in his state. Burns foresees Manns as a slot receiver “who can make an immediate impact.”
Among receivers, Burns also highlighted Brevyn Spann-Ford from St. Cloud Tech. Spann-Ford is 6-6, 237 pounds and Burns sees him as a “red zone threat” as either a wide receiver or tight end.
Minnesota’s lack of depth on the offensive line was an ongoing story in 2017. Dunlap and six other offensive linemen in the 2018 recruiting class are expected to help fix the depth problem and also upgrade the talent level. It’s been more than 11 years since a Minnesota offensive lineman has been drafted by the NFL.
Dunlap, 6-4, 368 pounds, is from the IMG Academy in Florida. Burns said Dunlap is Minnesota’s highest ranked offensive lineman commit in memory. Dunlap’s IMG teammate, the 6-8, 400-pound Faalele, was pursued by Alabama and Georgia, but he will play for Minnesota as one of the biggest Gophers in program history.
Burns said Texas prep offensive tackle Jack York was extended scholarship offers in recent weeks by multiple SEC schools but is keeping his commitment to Minnesota. Grant Norton, an offensive tackle commit from Missouri, turned down Nebraska and Wisconsin, according to Burns.
Burns believes junior college transfer Jason Dickson from California could soon be Minnesota’s starting right tackle. Dickson reportedly declined offers from Arizona State and UCLA.
“You just don’t find seven offensive line commits like this—that are all some of the hottest names—for schools trying to come and flip them,” Burns said.
While receivers and offensive linemen have commanded attention in the past, it’s been the quarterback position, more than any other, which has often had Minnesota fans on edge and reaching for Maalox. Next year the Gophers go into spring practice without any significant game experience at the position. There are, however, two quarterbacks in the 2018 recruiting class who are much anticipated and will likely be in a spring battle with redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan.
Already the favorite for the job, at least among fans, is Viramontes who coming out of high school committed to Michigan. He ended up at California and instead of being Jared Goff’s successor as the Golden Bears’ quarterback got caught up in a coaching change. This fall, after playing for Riverside Community College in California, he was rated by 247Sports the best junior college quarterback in the country.
Viramontes, 6-2, 230 pounds, has been compared with former Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow. He has that kind of athleticism and showed skills running and passing at Riverside.
“You’re going to see the read-option make a triumphant return with Viramontes there (at Minnesota),” Burns predicted. “He is one of the best athletes I think we’ve seen at Minnesota in quite some time. He is going to have the ball in his hands every snap of the game.”
Burns said Viramontes must improve his decision making when passing. “He only did throw eight interceptions this year but I think he is going to be a big boom or bust player in the passing game. He is either going to be hitting big shots or he might be throwing an interception or two, which…is something Minnesota fans are used to.
“But I think you’ll also see a Minnesota passing game—which…stop the presses—completes more than nine passes a game with Viramontes. I think that he has a very high ceiling here at Minnesota and he’s going to have three years to accomplish that.”
It’s uncommon for a preferred walk-on to be a candidate to become the starting quarterback at a Big Ten program but Zack Annexstad might be the exception. The Mankato, Minnesota native was outstanding this fall playing at IMG Academy in Florida. Burns said by mid-season the pro-style quarterback had won the starting job, beating out Artur Sitkowski, a 247Sports four-star commit headed to Rutgers.
Annexstad reportedly had scholarship offers from other programs but chose to walk-on with his home state team. Burns points out how unusual that is and said it’s an indication of both Annexstad’s abilities and Fleck’s persuasiveness.
Like Viaramontes and several others, Annexstad will enroll in school in January and be preparing for the 2018 Gopher season. “Annexstad is going to have every opportunity (to start),” Burns said.
The Gophers have a large class they are hoping to finalize tomorrow and it includes defensive players who Burns raves about. Names include defensive tackle Elijah Teague from Chicago who reportedly had offers from Oklahoma and Wisconsin. Georgia cornerback Terell Smith has exceptional speed and Burns said Smith will remind Gophers fans of a bigger Jalen Myrick.
Then there is Eden Prairie High School cornerback Benny Sapp III who despite missing most of the season with a knee injury received a scholarship offer recently from new Nebraska coach Scott Frost. Sapp is keeping the commitment to Minnesota he made last winter.
What Fleck and his assistants know is that the 2018 class will have to be the first of many exceptional recruiting groups for them to build not only a winning season or two, but more importantly to sustain a successful program. “You always want to out recruit the class you just signed,” Burns said.
Burns predicts the 2019 class will be smaller in total number but perhaps have a higher ranking than in 2018. That will have everything to do with signing high profile players like Edina junior offensive tackle Quinn Carroll. Another local player who Burns sees the Gophers targeting is Eden Prairie quarterback Cole Kramer. Burns predicted Kramer, the grandson of former Gopher player and athletic director Tom Moe, could be the first commitment for the class of 2019.