Another top-40 hit for P.J. Fleck in Gophers recruiting?

December 19, 2018

Story by Randy Johnsonandthinsp; rjohnson@startribune.com | Photos from Star Tribune and Sports Engine Star Tribune photo illustration

They crisscross the country, wooing teenagers, trying to impress their parents and talking up their programs in hopes of landing that coveted four-star recruit.

P.J. Fleck is part of this fraternity, and Wednesday, as college footballs three-day early national signing period begins, the Gophers coach will get a look at where his recruiting sits.

The conclusion: Overall, quite strong, with room to improve locally.

Fleck is expected to sign 23 players to national letters of intent for his Class of 2019, and the recruiting-focused website 247Sports.com has the Gophers class ranked No. 33 nationally and eighth among Big Ten teams in its composite of major national recruiting services.

Thats a solid follow-up to Minnesotas 2018 class, which ranked No. 30 after the first day of the early signing period and settled at No. 38.

The last time Minnesota had two consecutive top-40 recruiting classes came in 2008-09, when Tim Brewster signed the No. 26 and No. 35 class, respectively.

During the Jerry Kill/Tracy Claeys era, the Gophers rankings ranged from No. 46 to No. 67.

Its all an elevation in recruiting profile, which is what P.J. Fleck was brought here to do, said Ryan Burns, publisher of GopherIllustrated.com, which tracks Minnesota recruiting. Everybody wants a top-25 class, but considering they won five games in 2017 and six games so far in 2018, to bring in some of the kids they have is a good sign for the future.

A December surge that included a pair of four-star defensive linemen giving verbal commitments the highest-ranked players in the class bolstered the Gophers ranking.

To see a staff close strong for the second straight year, Burns added, is something Im not accustomed to.

Closing the border

When Fleck was hired in January 2017, he said: Were going to recruit the finest student-athletes in the country. And you know where were going to start? Our elite state of Minnesota.

The battle for Minnesota hasnt always gone Flecks way. The states top two recruits this season are four-star offensive tackles Quinn Carroll of Edina and Bryce Benhart of Lakeville North.

Fleck pushed hard to get both, even taking a helicopter to each players game during a Friday night in 2017. Still, they chose elsewhere, with Carroll picking Notre Dame and Benhart heading to Nebraska.

Quinn Carroll wanted to go to Notre Dame to build his own legacy and not exactly follow in the footsteps of his father [Jay, a former Gophers tight end], Burns said. Bryce Benhart wanted to get away from home as well and wanted to be a part of something at Nebraska that Scott Frost is building. Every kid is different.

Five- and four-star recruits from Minnesota choosing other programs is nothing new. Since 2010, the state has had only nine four-star recruits and only one five-star (Cretin-Derham Halls Seantrel Henderson, who ended up at Miami after originally signing with USC).

Three of those 10 recruits Irondale offensive lineman Jimmy Gjere in 2010, Minneapolis Washburn running back Jeff Jones in 2014 and Eden Prairie linebacker Carter Coughlin in 2016 signed with the Gophers.

In 2005, Wayzata linebacker James Laurinaitis gave Gophers coach Glen Mason a verbal commitment before Ohio State coach Jim Tressel came calling. After visiting Ohio States campus, Laurinaitis was hooked, and he eventually signed with the Buckeyes.

Looking back, it was a good decision because of where Minnesota went from there, said Laurinaitis, a three-time All-America selection and now an analyst for the Big Ten Network. Tim Brewster came in [after Mason] and things went in a different path.

While at Ohio State, Laurinaitis got to know a young, energetic graduate assistant named P.J. Fleck. Hes impressed with the direction of Minnesotas program.

Hes figured out ways to get things done, Laurinaitis said. He believes in it, and sometimes people think it comes off as a little salesy, but when youre at the point where he is with so many young guys on his roster, no wonder why hes selling Just keep believing. That takes time.

Sealing the border to keep the highest-ranked Minnesota recruits home is simple in theory but difficult in practice.

The key is winning. Top players want to play for championships, said Josh Helmholdt, Midwest analyst for Rivals.com. Ultimately, if Minnesota wants to be the it school for the top players in the state, theyve got to show the ability to play for championships. Thats a tall task.

Finishing strong

Though Carroll and Benhart got away, Fleck did secure the players ranked Nos. 3 through 6 in Minnesota this year in Owatonna athlete Jason Williamson, Eden Prairie quarterback Cole Kramer, Perham offensive lineman Logan Richter and Cretin-Derham Hall wide receiver Peter Udoibok. Last year, the Gophers landed the top five in-state players to whom they offered scholarships.

P.J.s shown a commitment to recruiting the state of Minnesota, and thats going to pay dividends down the road, Helmholdt said.

Last year, the Gophers got a December boost in their recruiting class by landing a pair of four-star offensive linemen, IMG Academys Curtis Dunlap Jr. and Daniel Faalele.

This year, they did it again, with December verbal commitments from four-star defensive linemen in Rashad Cheney of Ellenwood, Ga., and Kristian Williams of Memphis. Cheney previously had committed to Georgia, then Alabama. Williams offer list included Tennessee, Ole Miss and LSU.

They do have some really nice late additions, Helmholdt said. Getting Williams and getting Cheney are close to that level, but theyre not quite Dunlap and Faalele. But the story of this class hasnt been fully written yet.

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