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U Recruiting Trying to Win West Division

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February 1, 2017

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National Signing Day is today and the Gophers won’t top the football recruiting rankings in the Big Ten West, but in the future they might be on their way to consistently being equal to or ahead of programs like Nebraska, Wisconsin and Iowa.

New Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck has impressed those who track college football recruiting. The 36-year-old Fleck has a nonstop passion for his job and a head full of ideas including communications with recruits through social media. The January 30 issue of Sports Illustrated even devoted space to Fleck in its article about how “the recruiting game has gone digital, mobile and high concept, and any coach who wants to compete needs a hot designer on his roster.”

Creativity is a frequently used word associated with college football recruiting. Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh grabs a headline singing a rap song; Ohio State’s Urban Meyer gets into a bidding war with Texas over a graphic designer; and Nick Saban dazzles Alabama recruits with his massive home that is just a golf cart ride away from a lake.

P.J. Fleck

Whether Fleck can ultimately recruit and coach at an elite level will have everything to do with the Gophers’ football future. He inherits a program and team that has been resurrected but hasn’t reached championship status. Minnesota has won two consecutive bowl games and totaled eight wins or more in three of the last four seasons. Yet the Gophers haven’t been Big Ten champs since 1967, have never won a Big Ten West Division title and hold no wins over Wisconsin since 2003.

Recruiting authority Ryan Burns has been impressed with Fleck since he was hired in early January. National recruiting websites have jumped the Gophers way ahead of where their 2017 class was ranked before Fleck arrived in Minneapolis. Fleck has out-recruited Power Five rivals for players, convincing some to commit to him without visiting the University of Minnesota campus.

Burns, publisher of the GopherIllustrated.com website, thinks Fleck’s recruiting will ultimately lead the Gophers to playing “meaningful games” in November. The GopherIllustrated website includes national team rankings from Scout which as of this morning assigns the seven Big Ten West Division programs the following rankings: Nebraska No. 18; Minnesota No. 33; Illinois No. 34, Iowa No. 41; Northwestern No. 48; Wisconsin No. 53; and Purdue No 77.

“It’s interesting to see them (the Gophers) going after kids with P-Five offers—compared to going against (programs like) Troy and Louisiana-Lafayette,” Burns told Sports Headliners. “He’s (Fleck) trying to make his stamp, and for only being here for three weeks, obviously he’s raised his class. They’re in the 30’s now (in the rankings). They’re firmly above Iowa and Wisconsin. I think that they can sustain that (in future years).

“I think that Nebraska (strong California recruiting base) is probably going to be at the top of the recruiting ranks in the Big Ten West most years but I think there is no reason that they (the Gophers) can’t come in second or third. Especially continue to beat Iowa and Wisconsin because P.J. is very charismatic once he gets in a living room. He knows how to sell. He knows how to get the job done.”

Other recruiting websites don’t have the Gophers ranked as high as Scout. Rivals, for example, has Minnesota No. 53 and trailing No. 38 Iowa and No. 45 Wisconsin. But what’s not debatable is the Gophers have shot up the recruiting charts in the short time Fleck has been head coach, including moving from No. 77 to No. 49 in Rivals’ rankings.

As signed National Letters of Intent reach the Gophers’ football office today, fans of the program can feel optimism about a class expected to include more than 25 scholarship student-athletes. When Burns looks at the incoming talent that Minnesota will officially announce later today, he offers stories that substantiate his optimism about Fleck’s recruiting.

Burns has been following and writing about Gophers recruiting for years and until now he couldn’t recall Minnesota getting a player that Notre Dame was making a run for. That’s what happened last month when Fleck received a verbal commitment from Portland, Oregon cornerback Demetrius Douglas who Burns said Oregon also wanted.

Burns also said the Gophers took a player away from the Hawkeyes in Kansas native and wide receiver Harry Van Dyne. His older brother is going to Iowa as a walk-on and Burns said the Hawkeyes coveted Harry.

Burns mentioned additional high quality players who turned down offers from other major schools including four-star safety Ken Handy-Holly from Alabama, and cornerback Adam Beck from Texas who said no thanks to schools like Colorado and flipped his original commitment to Texas Tech.

Quarterback Tanner Morgan has already enrolled at the U and Burns has high praise for the Kentucky native who reportedly turned down an offer from national power Louisville. “I think Tanner Morgan has the best quarterback tape you’ve seen from a Gopher quarterback signee in at least four or five years,” Burns said.

Burns wouldn’t be that surprised if the Kentucky native starts for Minnesota next fall. “I think if he can get down the offense, he could absolutely play from day one.”

Worth Noting

It’s interesting that in today’s high-tech world, athletes send their signed National Letters of Intent via fax to their colleges of choice. Holding up a signed fax does provide a news photo opportunity.

The Gophers have sold 253 new season tickets since Fleck was hired, according to an email from an athletic department spokesman. who noted no “aggressive ticket push” has been made so far to sell tickets.

The Big Ten Network will have National Signing Day programming from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. today.

A person who should know says it’s likely Apple Valley junior point guard Tre Jones will sign with Duke next fall, following his brother Tyus’ path to playing for legendary Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski.

Richard Pitino

Richard Pitino’s Gophers have lost five consecutive games and play at Illinois Saturday afternoon. Minnesota is 1-3 at home and 2-3 on the road in Big Ten games. Earlier this season Pitino said: “In this league you better win at home. It’s extremely important.”

Four of the Gophers’ six defeats have been by seven points or fewer including overtime losses to Michigan State by one and Wisconsin by two. On the road Minnesota does have a nine point overtime win against Purdue and four point victory versus Northwestern.

Pitino had a difficult stretch with close losses two years ago when his Gophers lost eight conference games by six points or less. There were NCAA Tournament hopes before the season for that team but Minnesota finished with a 6-12 Big Ten record and didn’t play in the postseason other than the conference tournament.

The Timberwolves, who have won eight of their last 11 games, play the NBA champion Cavs tonight in Cleveland. Web rumors are Knicks basketball boss Phil Jackson is interested in acquiring Wolves point guard Ricky Rubio and Cavs power forward Kevin Love, the former Wolves star who played a key role in last year’s game seven playoff win over the Warriors. The passing skills of Rubio and Love on the Knicks would be great for Jackson’s famous triangle offense.

A record 381 MIAC student-athletes have earned Academic All-Conference recognition for their classroom work last fall. They had a cumulative grade point average of 3.5 or better on a 4.0 scale. Student-athletes must be a sophomore, junior or senior with at least one year (two semesters) at their institution to be eligible for the recognition. The MIAC saw its record total of honorees rise for the fifth straight year, exceeding by 24 the record of 357 set in 2015.

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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.

(1) Reader Comment

  1. avatar
    Tom Bienemann
    February 2, 2017 at 1:13 pm

    While projecting recruits is always spotty, I'm encouraged by what I read. Wisky fans have to be a little nervous. Chryst has to win with his own recruits now. And it's easy to a slide. You could give Mike Reilly the #1 recruiting class and I think he'd still screw it up. Go Gophers!

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