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Fleck Gives High Praise to Frosh Class

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August 22, 2021

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A Sunday notes column with a focus on University of Minnesota football.

Coach P.J. Fleck and staff had an early look at some freshmen in the 2021 recruiting class when they enrolled in school last winter. With preseason practice underway, Fleck has now seen all his freshmen. His verdict:

“They’re really good. This class is really (a) special class.”

Justin Walley was among early enrollees and although a true freshman the cornerback seems likely to play in 2021 games. The 5-11, 185 pound Walley was the Class 6A Mr. Mississippi Football and he figures to be a key contributor in the secondary during his U career.

Help on the back end is also likely to come (sooner or later) from freshman Steven Ortiz Jr. from Arizona. The 6-foot, 180 pound Ortiz was a four-star recruit, while Walley was a three-star. Both came from winning prep programs.

Frosh quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, from Antioch, Illinois, threw some of the best spirals of any passers at a practice last week. The four-star prospect was ranked the No. 16 quarterback in the country by Rivals. He is all but certain to be redshirted on a deep QB roster.

There are freshmen showing poise despite their inexperience on the college level. Wide receiver Brady Boyd from Southlake, Texas looks the part early in his Minnesota Career. With Fleck taking a by-committee approach to the receiving game, August practice indicates Boyd could be making some Saturday receptions for the Gophers.

P.J. Fleck

Four-star running back Mar’Keise Irving, from Country Club Hills, Illinois, is a name Fleck mentions when talking kick off returners. Fleck predicts improvement in the return game and wants more explosive runs. While Irving is in the mix for returning kickoffs this season, he is unlikely to break into the rotation of veteran running backs ahead of him.

Fleck initially started talking about his freshmen class last week when asked about two specific players, defensive lineman Austin Booker and tight end Jameson Geers. He raved about both.

“Austin Booker is going to play a ton of football here. I hate throwing out the word ‘freak,’ because people use it all the time, but he is a young freak. He’s very talented. He’s incredibly explosive.

“In summer conditioning, he won every single sprint. He was running the times of the skilled positions, the wideouts and the DBs. He can run.

“And he got thrown in there (at practice) probably a little bit before he’s ready. He’s pretty thin (6-6, 240) and not as strong as he needs to be. But the minute he starts filling out, he’s going to be a special player.

“Jameson Geers, he might play for us this year. He has an opportunity. He’s…tough, he can run routes, he can catch the ball.”

Among frosh players who will watch and learn while going the redshirt route are offensive linemen Jackson Hunter, Cameron James, Logan Purcell and Saia Mapakaitolo. Minnesota’s starting offensive line consists entirely of upper classmen and all could be playing their final season for the Gophers. That puts a priority on developing the four freshmen.

The hope was that by now the Gophers would have more than one o-line verbal commit in the class of 2022 (Tony Nelson from Tracy, Minnesota). If that doesn’t change, Fleck and his recruiters may target the transfer portal in the next offseason.

Ryan Burns, the 247Sports Gopher football authority, likes Nelson’s potential. “I think he’s got a chance to be the best offensive lineman in the state of Minnesota in this class. He’s certainly much more raw than a Deylin Hasert (from Marshall, Minnesota and verbally committed to Iowa State). He’s much more raw than the Hill-Murray kid as well (Lucas Heyer, with a verbal to Stanford).

“But (Nelson) he’s got athleticism and he’s got the ideal physical tools at 6-6, 265. He’s what a tackle in the Big Ten looks like. He’s what Iowa has thrown out at tackle, or Wisconsin has thrown out at tackle for so many years. Seeing him live at Minnesota’s camp…he’s not afraid to get his nose dirty a little bit too. I like him quite a bit.”

It will be interesting to see how much, if at all, the Gophers use the wildcat formation this season. It was productive as a power formation in past seasons when Minnesota called on 6-4, 240-pound tight end and former prep quarterback Seth Green. Despite his remaining eligibility at Minnesota, he transferred to the Houston Cougars.

With the deep quarterback roster, Minnesota coaches could use redshirt sophomore Cole Kramer in the wildcat. He was a heady competitor at Eden Prairie High School and is probably the best runner among the Gophers’ top five quarterbacks. At about 6-1, 205 he doesn’t have Green’s power but he offers a run-pass threat.

Former Gopher and MLB legend Paul Molitor is 65 today. Ex-Gopher women’s basketball coach Pam Borton is 56. Minnesota Vikings wide receiver Adam Thielen is 31.

Ron Stolski

Ron Stolski, a superb speaker and legendary state high school football coach before retiring with 389 wins, will talk to the CORES luncheon group Thursday, September 9 at the Bloomington Event Center. He has been the executive director of the Minnesota Football Coaches Association since the organization’s inception in 2006. For more information about the luncheon and program, contact Jim Dotseth, dotsethj@comcast.net. CORES is an acronym for coaches, officials, reporters, educators and sports fans.

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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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