They haven’t won every recruiting battle, of course, but Jerry Kill and his Gophers staff have drawn praise for the class they’ll unveil Wednesday on National Signing Day.
From all accounts, it’s the best of Kill’s four classes at Minnesota, a group that includes some notable high-ceiling talent and addresses a key need at wide receiver.
If highly touted Minneapolis Washburn running back Jeff Jones picks the Gophers, as he is expected to do Wednesday morning, there will be some celebratory fist pumps around Dinkytown.
“I think [Kill’s] in the process right now of enhancing the roster with more speed, more athleticism,” ESPN national recruiting director Tom Luginbill said. “It’s just not something you do overnight by waving a magic wand. It’s a process.
“And if you don’t believe in [Kill’s] process, then you haven’t been paying attention to his history. Because all he’s done is won.”
One of Luginbill’s 39,400 Twitter followers wondered this weekend why any recruit would willingly pick Minnesota, with its frigid weather. Luginbill replied, “Jerry Kill might be one of the top five coaches in [college football] right now.”
Luginbill explained his point in a conference call this week.
“You’re talking about a guy that has won everywhere he has been,” Luginbill said. “And everywhere he was prior to getting there, they were not winning. And he hasn’t been at places that were easy to win. You ever been to DeKalb, Illinois?”
That’s a reference to Northern Illinois, where Kill’s three recruiting classes finished 112th, 91st and 83rd nationally, in the Rivals.com rankings. But the Huskies went 11-3 in Kill’s third season and are 35-7 since he left.
At Minnesota, Kill’s two most recent classes ranked last in the Big Ten, and 72nd and 61st nationally, according to Rivals.com.
This year, coming off an 8-5 season, the Gophers have climbed the rankings with a flurry of late signings. As of Tuesday, their class ranked 54th nationally, according to Rivals.com, and ninth in a 14-team Big Ten that now includes Maryland and Rutgers.
“It already is Kill’s best class,” said Zach Johnson, who runs GopherIllustrated.com, a Rivals.com affiliate. “They’ve got some kids who in my opinion could be big-time players.”
Jones tops the list. He verbally committed to the Gophers last February but kept his recruiting options open. After he was named co-MVP of the Under Armour All-American Game last month, Jones got invited to visit Florida and Michigan, but those schools later canceled.
Rivals.com ranks Jones as the nation’s 44th-best recruit and No. 7 running back, but he still needs to qualify academically to play Division I. Washburn coach Giovan Jenkins said Jones is close but needs to lift his grade-point average by two-tenths of a point and raise his ACT score by one point.
Officially, Jones’ three finalists are Iowa State, Minnesota and Tennessee, but Johnson and others are confident the Gophers will get him.
“Minnesota doesn’t get a kid like that if he’s not local, and if the helmet schools [top programs from around the country] aren’t backing off for some reason,” Johnson said.
Besides Jones, the Gophers will keep two other scholarship players in state — Owatonna defensive lineman Andrew Stelter and Wayzata tight end Brandon Lingen. However, two offensive linemen from Minnesota are heading to the SEC — East Ridge’s J.C. Hassenauer to Alabama and Chanhassen’s Frank Ragnow to Arkansas.
The Ragnow decision stung the Gophers because they had worked hard to keep him home, and he kept them as a finalist until Friday.
“It hurts to lose two linemen from their own state, but they made up for it with their out-of-state catches,” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network.
One of those catches is Connor Mayes, a center from Van Alstyne, Texas, who played in the U.S. Army All-American Game. He’s the brother of Gophers lineman Alex Mayes.
“If [Connor Mayes] wouldn’t have committed to Minnesota so early, he could have played virtually wherever he wanted,” Johnson said. “He turned down offers from Oklahoma, TCU — where he’s got some family history — Texas A&M, Texas Tech. Everybody wanted this kid.”
Gaelin Elmore, a tight end from Somerset, Wis., had offers from Wisconsin and Nebraska but stuck with the Gophers.
“It’s not too often that Minnesota beats out Wisconsin for a recruit that the Badgers want out of Wisconsin,” Johnson said. “This is probably the first case that I can remember in 12 years.”
Jerry Gibson, a 6-3 athlete from Theodore, Ala., gave the Gophers a scare when he visited South Carolina last weekend, but all indications have him signing with Minnesota. He could wind up playing tight end, defensive end or linebacker.
“Gibson, if they can hang on to him, is outstanding,” Lemming said. “He’s a guy who could play right away as a freshman.”
The Gophers knew they needed wide receivers, especially since their top two at season’s end — Drew Wolitarsky and Donovahn Jones — were both true freshmen. It took until this past week, but the Gophers wound up getting three receivers that Rivals.com ranks as three-star recruits — Melvin Holland Jr. (from Ashburn, Va.), Isaiah Gentry (Cincinnati) and Conner Krizancic (Mentor, Ohio).
“Not only do I like them, I think they complement each other perfectly,” Johnson said.
Kill can’t comment on specific recruits until they sign their official letters of intent. He is scheduled to address the media at 4 p.m. Wednesday. Barring any last-minute changes of heart by recruits, he’s expected to be in fine spirits.