Well on his way to assembling a second consecutive top-40 national recruiting class, Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck on Wednesday shifted roles a bit and put on a would-be NFL general manager’s hat.

“We wanted to make sure we kept two or three scholarships available to hit, possibly, the ‘free-agent market,’ which has now dripped into college football,” Fleck said on the opening of college football’s early signing period.

The coach announced the signings of 23 new players, including 21 who will be on scholarship for the 2019 season.

With those extra two or three scholarships in his back pocket, Fleck might do some shopping. He and his assistants will hit the recruiting trail again in January, with a chance to bolster the class in time for the Feb. 6 traditional signing date.

Fleck referred to the new national database that allows athletes to submit their names and desire to transfer, allowing coaches from other schools to contact them.

“That’s going to be a big step in college football, to have January for those things,” Fleck said.

He also said the Gophers could use the open scholarships to sign one to three more high school recruits.

Last year, the Gophers signed their entire class, distributing all 25 scholarships, on the opening day of the early signing period. That enabled them to lock down a group they wanted, but offered no flexibility later.

“We learned last year, we would have loved to have one or two more [scholarships available],” Fleck said.

The Gophers’ 2019 class, heavy on defensive linemen with five, ranked 34th nationally and eighth in the Big Ten as of Wednesday evening by recruiting-focused website 247Sports.com’s composite of major services. Fleck considers it a success, especially paired with last year’s class which ranked 38th nationally.

“This is the highest-ranked consecutive classes in school history … since the internet era,” Fleck said. “… It’s very important for donors, for boosters, for supporters to know what type of quality people we’re getting, players we’re getting and who we’re beating on the recruiting trail.”

Wednesday included two surprises, as players signed their national letters of intent.

The first surprise: The Gophers signed Kelvin Clemmons, a defensive back from Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College who was expected to sign with Kentucky. The 6-1, 205-pound Clemmons is the No. 11-ranked JUCO cornerback in the 247Sports composite.

A Tampa, Fla., native, Clemmons did not make an official visit to Minnesota, even though he’ll be enrolling next month.

The second surprise: Four-star defensive tackle Kristian Williams of Memphis, who gave the Gophers a verbal commitment last Friday, did not sign his letter of intent after saying he would. Williams, who visited the Gophers on Dec. 1, also has strong interest from Indiana, Kentucky, LSU and Louisville, among others.

Fleck can’t comment on unsigned individual players but said, “We still have one player committed to us that is going to sign in February.”

If he signs, Williams would be the second-highest-rated player in Minnesota’s class. The top-ranked player to sign was Rashad Cheney Jr., a four-star, 6-2, 280-pound defensive tackle from Cedar Grove High School in Ellenwood, Ga., who previously had verbally committed to Georgia, then Alabama.

Fleck relishes the challenge of trying to keep players who have verbally committed to Minnesota but still are receiving offers from bigger-name programs. For example, four-star wide receiver Rashod Bateman stuck with the Gophers last year even though a handful of SEC schools, including home-state Georgia, came with late offers.

This year, three-star linebacker James Gordon IV stayed true to Fleck even though Florida State and Miami (Fla.) offered him scholarships Nov. 30.

“What we want to be in is big-boy fights,” Fleck said. “We’ll recruit against anybody. We want to do that.”

Apparently, that goes for high school recruits and “free agent” transfer targets, too.