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U Football Hopes to Land ‘Big Fish’

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July 28, 2019


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The Golden Gophers have 22 verbal commitments for their 2020 football recruiting class, per 247Sports, but local authority Ryan Burns told Sports Headliners Minnesota is still shopping and he expects the final scholarships awarded could total 25 next year.

Burns, who owns and writes for, said there are a couple of prep players Minnesota is targeting including four-star recruit Kaden Johnson, the 6-4 outstanding linebacker from Minneapolis. “He’s the big fish out there right now,” Burns said. “He is waiting on something. The question is what is that something.

“He is not in a hurry to make a decision, even though Minnesota and Wisconsin are getting up there in spots (scholarships still available). And I know that the Gophers are going to wait until National Scholarship Day and hold a scholarship for him.”

National Signing Day for high school players is December 18, and another state player Burns said the Gophers are waiting on is, Danny Striggow, a three-star 6-4 defensive end from Long Lake who he thinks is trying to decide between Minnesota and Iowa. “He is going to be making a decision here, I believe, in August,” Burns said about Striggow who is a state champion wrestler.

Head coach P.J. Fleck and his assistants have two four-star commits among their 22 verbals. Daniel Jackson is a 5-foot-11 wide receiver from the Kansas City area, while running back Ky Thomas from Topeka, Kansas is also 5-11.

The Gophers are gambling more on Jackson than on the average recruit. “He was the most dynamic player in Kansas as a sophomore for his class, and in the first game of the year last year, he tore his ACL,” Burns said.

Jackson’s school, Bishop Miege, has won five consecutive state championships. His coach, Jon Holmes, believes in a Jackson comeback. “He knows what Daniel is rated and he’s told me as recently as a couple of weeks ago he still thinks he’s undervalued and underrated,” Burns said.

Ryan Burns

Several years ago the Gophers recruited a potentially great running back in Washburn’s Jeff Jones, who was named the state’s Mr. Football in 2013. Jones hardly played for Minnesota because of off-field issues but the 185-pound Thomas reminds Burns of Jones.

“I think he has got the best side to side (running) ability we’ve seen in a Gopher running back since Jeff Jones,” Burns said. “That shouldn’t be taken lightly considering Minnesota has had some really good ones including two on campus right now in Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks. He just knows how to make people miss in a phone booth.”

There are always three-star recruits who during their senior seasons can push for and achieve four-star rankings. Included in that group is Anoka linebacker Cody Lindenberg, a player Burns described as ideal in size at 6-2, 210 with exceptional athleticism and “technically sound” in his game. “All he’s gotta do is put that together on a senior tape and I think Minnesota is going to be getting a steal with him,” Burns said about the Gopher verbal commit.

Minnesota has three verbal commitments per 247Sports for the class of 2021 including a big name in 6-foot-4, four-star quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis from Illinois. Burns said Kaliakmanis turned down offers from Iowa, Iowa State, Syracuse, Tennessee and Virginia Tech. “That’s about as high profile as it gets,” Burns said.

Burns believes Kaliakmanis has the physical skills to attract recruiters and then said: ““But I think what (offensive coordinator) Kirk Ciarrocca values in him so much is the way he’s able to process a defense, especially for a young kid at his age. We’re talking about a 16-year-old kid right now that put up some pretty good numbers at Antioch High Scholl in Illinois. You watch the tape, he (Kaliakmanis) knows what he’s looking at when he is staring at a defense.”

Why Minnesota? Burns said Kaliakmanis liked what the Gophers are developing on the field but there is more. He is attracted by the total culture of the Fleck regime including the relationships with teammates and outside community service activities, Burns explained.

With two freshmen and two sophomore quarterbacks on scholarship already, and Kaliakmanis in waiting, the 2020 class doesn’t have a commitment from another quarterback. Instead Fleck is placing an emphasis on other positions including offensive and defensive linemen, with verbal commits from three on each side of the ball.

Two offensive linemen Burns rates highly are Aireontae Ersery from Kansas City and Casey Collier from Texas. “Two guys that have a lot of athleticism, have a lot of length, and they’re both legitimate 6-foot-5- plus,” he said.

Ali Saad is a defensive lineman Burns believes could make an early impact in his Gopher career, despite his youth. “He is only 16 right now, and that being said he looks like a 22-year old grown man,” Burns said of the 6-4, 250 pound prep from Dearborn, Michigan.

Defensive line recruit Gage Keys is the kind of athlete who looks impressive even in street clothes. “I just think that athletically he’s as good looking (athletically) as you’re going to get,” Burns said of the Ohio prep. “He was a basketball player for the first three years. He finally this offseason said, ‘I am going to fully dedicate myself to football,’ and now he is 250 pounds already and he looks very, very special.”

It appears Fleck and his staff are jumping in early on the trend to look for international players. Sophomore offensive tackle Daniel Faalele, 6-8, 400 pounds, is from Australia by way of IMG Academy in Florida and showed so much potential last season he could be a star soon. The 2020 class has verbal commitments from cornerback Richard Agyekum of the Netherlands and defensive lineman Melle Kreuder of Germany.

Burns expects the number of international players recruited in the Big Ten and elsewhere in college football to continue increasing. “It’s a different, evolving world where last year I think maybe there were one or two Big Ten kids that came from international (places),” he said. “Well, now it’s going to be five, six or seven. Just kind of the way things are evolving across college football.”

The 6-foot-3 Kreuder is 21 years old, with a maturity that within a few years will distinguish him from his teammates and Big Ten peers. “…I would much rather have a 25-year-old defensive end…going against Iowa than I would a 17 year old,” Burns said.

The 2020 recruiting class is ranked No. 27 in the nation by 247Sports. Part of the reason for the high ranking is Minnesota has more players verbally committed than a lot programs, and so the Gophers final rank after National Signing Day is likely to be in the 30’s where Fleck’s two previous classes landed.

What does Burns think of the 2020 recruiting class? “I think it’s pretty good for a team that hasn’t really showed that they can win consistently yet. Where year one it was a struggle with P.J. trying to implement his system, five wins. Last year great September, terrible October, (and) really good late October, November, December.

“Now if Minnesota can show consistently on the field—and show that they can win seven, eight, nine games this year—yes, this is going to help with their 2020 class, but what it is really going to help is that 2021 class. …”

In Fleck’s first season of 2017, Minnesota was 2-7 in the Big Ten and 5-7 overall. Last year the records changed to 3-6 and 7-6, including three impressive wins in the last four games.

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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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