While many college football coaches would view being hired only 26 days before national signing day as a big hindrance to landing a great recruiting group, new Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said he and his staff viewed it differently at the news conference announcing the Minnesota Class of 2017 on Wednesday.

“Some people think it can handicap you. We looked at it as an opportunity, we really did,” said Fleck, who was hired Jan. 6. “We looked at it as an opportunity to continue to secure the players that we really knew from Western Michigan University that were willing to come to the University of Minnesota. Then we looked at it as an opportunity that we have to get to know players very, very quickly and cipher through which ones we wanted. It made it a lot of fun, I’ll be honest with you, it made it a lot of fun.”

Fleck’s first Gophers class brought in 25 players, including nine who previously had committed to Western Michigan. While some fans might wonder about those players’ ability to compete in the Big Ten, Fleck said it was not a question of their ability. Most had offers from other Big Ten schools when they committed to WMU.

“I think that was really critical,” he said. One good example is defensive end Esezi Otomewo of Indianapolis, who had offers from Illinois, Iowa State and Purdue among other Power 5 schools before committing to Western Michigan and eventually flipping to the Gophers.

Just as impressive for Fleck was his ability to sign some big-time recruits that could have gone to other major-conference schools. Cornerback Adam Beck had committed to Texas Tech, wide receiver Demetrius Douglas had committed to Oregon, all-around athlete Reyondous Estes had committed to Missouri and safety Kendarian Handy-Holly had offers from schools such as Florida and Louisville.

So does Fleck think this is a top class?

“I think we have an elite recruiting class for us,” he said. “I don’t think we need to compare it to anybody else. We filled needs that we needed, and we kind of did it our way.”

Decision looms

One big question mark looming over Fleck’s first season will be the University of Minnesota’s decision regarding 10 players who appealed suspensions stemming from a sexual assault investigation. Former coach Tracy Claeys eventually was fired Jan. 3, in the days following the announced suspensions.

“I think the biggest thing with the suspension right now, and again we can’t comment too much because of the privacy laws, but I can say that the biggest thing is we filled holes just in case,” Fleck said.

The Gophers lost 11 seniors from the two-deep depth chart from their final regular-season game. but three of the suspended players were on that chart as well — cornerbacks KiAnte Hardin and Antonio Shenault and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. And on top of those 14 players, starting center Tyler Moore transferred to Oklahoma State. So that’s 15 players out of 44 on the two-deep roster that might need to be replaced this season.

With that in mind, Fleck was asked what he thinks about the Gophers’ schedule next season and how difficult it will be for a first-year Big Ten coach.

“I think it’s a very demanding schedule, I think it’s a very difficult schedule and challenging schedule, but you wouldn’t want it any other way,” he said. “I think with Michigan and Michigan State, I think that’s tremendous on the crossovers [against Big Ten East Division teams]. Everybody on our opponent list, we’re going to take one game at a time, and that’s all we’re going to look at.”

First few weeks

While Fleck and his staff have been extremely busy recruiting, he was asked how he has been accepted as the new Gophers coach.

“I want to thank everybody for being very accepting of me,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a lot of people that don’t like me, and I’m sure there’s people that do like me. That’s just part of being a public figure and being a head football coach.

“All I can do every single day is do everything I can to make University of Minnesota football better on a daily basis.”

He also was asked if he’s had time to meet with any university boosters, who are going to be important to the football program going forward.

“I’m in the process,” he said. “I’m finally back [from recruiting] so I’m sure I’m going to have a lot of meetings coming up with a lot of them. I can’t wait to talk to them.”

Jottings

• Aaron Whitefield, the Twins’ Australian outfielder prospect who was a former standout softball player, continues to dominate the Australian Baseball League. Whitefield is hitting .338 for the Brisbane Bandits (second in the league) and is leading the league by a wide margin with 20 stolen bases. He also has four homers, 12 doubles, 15 RBI and 34 runs scored in 39 games. While Whitefield might sound like a novelty prospect, he hit .298 in 51 games in the Gulf Coast League last year, and led the league in stolen bases (31) at the age of 20.

• Keith Law of ESPN recently released his rankings of the top farm systems in baseball. The Twins ranked 11th, despite players such as Byron Buxton, Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Jorge Polanco already with the major league club. Law has shortstop Nick Gordon ranked as the 53rd-best prospect in baseball, pitcher Fernando Romero ranked 65th, pitcher Kohl Stewart ranked 87th, pitcher Stephen Gonsalves ranked 91st and outfielder Alex Kirilloff ranked 97th.

• Two Minnesota players being recruited in the Class of 2018 by Gophers basketball coach Richard Pitino are forwards Jarvis Thomas of Orono and Race Thompson of Armstrong. While Thompson, ranked 87th in the nation by Rivals, has gotten a lot of attention, Thomas has been offered by Marquette, Oregon State, Arizona State, Iowa State, Cal State Bakersfield and Green Bay. He’s someone Gophers fans might want to keep watching.

• Woodbury native Mason Roomes will compete for the Gophers men’s track and field program as a true freshman this year, having already helped Minnesota to its third consecutive Border Battle dual meet victory over Wisconsin. Roomes is the son of Rolando Roomes, who was an outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds during the organization’s run to the 1990 World Series. Roomes finished second in the long jump and third in the 200 meters in last year’s Class 2A meet.

 

Sid Hartman can be heard Mondays and Fridays on 830-AM at 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. shartman@startribune.com