Afternoon had arrived on Tracy Claeys’ first national signing day as Gophers head football coach Wednesday, and two key recruits still hadn’t revealed their choices.
Dredrick Snelson, a Florida receiver who had given the Gophers a verbal commitment in August, had three hats sitting in front of him — and Minnesota was not among them. Snelson chose Central Florida over Maryland and Penn State.
Moments later in Louisiana, cornerback Coney Durr ended the suspense over his choice by picking the Gophers over Virginia Tech. Hundreds watched these developments on Internet video streams, but Claeys later said he wasn’t paying attention.
He was in his office paying bills, he said, knowing it was a recruiting dead period. He awaited the news in an afternoon staff meeting.
“It’ll eat you up if you get consumed with all that,” Claeys said. “You know, you’re dealing with 17-, 18-year-old kids. So I knew there was a good chunk of kids that wanted to be here and enjoyed their visits and will make us better. Those are the ones you worry about.”
The Gophers finished with 20 scholarship signees in a class ranked 50th in the nation by Rivals.com. The team’s five previous recruiting classes, under former coach Jerry Kill, each ranked 52nd or lower, so this was a slight uptick.
Perhaps more interesting is the way Claeys put his own stamp on the class in only three months.
When Kill retired for health reasons in late October, Claeys inherited a class that Rivals had ranked as high as 26th after the early commitment of four-star linebacker Carter Coughlin and other standouts in a robust in-state class.
But there were other commitments, such as Sean Foster, a four-star offensive lineman from Illinois, whom Claeys didn’t view as a good fit. Gophers coaches had seen defensive line recruit Amir Watts dominate Foster on film. Watts wound up signing with Pittsburgh. Foster signed with Iowa State, after a mutual parting with Minnesota.
More turnover came after Claeys fired Matt Limegrover, who had served as Kill’s longtime offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Matt Kegel, a three-star offensive tackle from Chaska, decommitted from the Gophers and chose Oklahoma State.
But Claeys was undeterred. In December, he landed Garrison Wright, who chose the Gophers over TCU out of Butler (Kan.) Community College. Wright and fellow junior college transfer Vincent Calhoun are widely expected to be the Gophers’ starting guards this fall.
With new offensive line coach Bart Miller, Claeys said he’s looking for the Gophers to add “explosion, size, strength and attitude.”
“In my opinion, the last couple of recruiting classes, we’ve paid more attention to pass protection than we have road graders, and knocking people off the ball,” Claeys said. “Not that pass protection isn’t important. But we are going to make our money knocking people off the ball, and then worry about pass protection.”
During the two-week recruiting contact periods in December and January, Claeys said he was on the road every night and in a different airport almost every day.
“You didn’t want to leave anything to chance,” he said. “You wanted to make sure that you got in the homes and those [commitments] were all solid because change is a scary deal.”
The Gophers actually had two targets at Dutchtown High School in Geismar, La. — Durr and offensive lineman Lloyd Cushenberry, who wound up signing with LSU. The Gophers were close with Cushenberry, just as they were with Daniel Thomas, a safety from Montgomery, Ala., who took a late offer from Auburn.
“That hasn’t happened in the past, for us to get that far down the line and get in the house and visit with the parents and all that,” Claeys said. “We’ve got to win a few of those [recruiting battles], too, but at least we’ve had more this year.”
The Gophers won other battles. Coughlin picked Minnesota over Ohio State. Tyler Johnson and Sam Schlueter both had offers from Wisconsin. Calhoun received a strong push from Mississippi State. Junior college defensive tackle Merrick Jackson stuck with Minnesota despite late offers from Baylor and Oklahoma State.
Defensive end TaMarion Johnson, from Southfield, Mich., picked the Gophers on Wednesday over offers from Purdue and Iowa State. The Gophers also added Mark Williams, from Jackson, Ala., giving them a second dual-threat quarterback signee to go with Seth Green.
Snelson became the 10th player to decommit from the Gophers since Kill’s retirement. But after Snelson’s signing day spectacle, Coughlin tweeted, “Minnesota has never been big on drama queens! This is for the best! There’s no I in team.”
Claeys said, “Here’s the thing: We win ballgames and continue to get better because of the kids that want to be here. And I don’t want to coach any that don’t want to.”