Football coach P.J. Fleck said Wednesday, after announcing the highest-rated recruiting class the Gophers have had in recent memory, that this was the kind of class he felt his coaching staff could land given enough time.
“Well, we had a whole year to prepare. We had two weeks to recruit when we first got here,” Fleck said. “We had a whole year this year to build those relationships, really get the Minnesota Golden Gophers brand out there and show what the new Minnesota movement is all about. I think a lot of players want to be a part of that.”
The accolades quickly came in for this Gophers class, with 247Sports.com putting this group of 26 commits at No. 29 in the country, which was the best class ranking of any team in the Big Ten West. Fleck said this kind of class was only the first in a long line of accomplishments the Gophers want to start making more common.
“It’s something we haven’t done before and it’s one of those ‘nevers’ that we’re going to continue to accomplish and check off,” he said. “But again, the rankings don’t necessarily matter to us. They don’t sit there and run us. But it’s nice to know that your class is recognized as one of the better ones in college football.”
This is Fleck’s sixth recruiting class as a head coach, and he knows the rankings won’t mean anything for a few years.
“You don’t know until about three or four years down the road how well you did,” he said. “But we feel like we targeted the guys we needed in the key positions that we needed help in, and I thought our staff did a tremendous job of hitting it right on the head.”
Did he get the guys that he was after?
“We signed them all, which was really good,” he said.
Ready to play?
Fleck said seven of his players will enroll in classes in January and be eligible to start working out and doing winter conditioning with the training staff.
When asked if there were any recruits that could play next season, Fleck said he thought there were.
“A guy like Rashod Bateman [a four-star receiver out of Tifton, Ga.] has an opportunity to play right away,” Fleck said. “I really believe that. Braelen Oliver [a three-star inside linebacker from Douglasville, Ga.] because of Jon Celestin’s departure. You look at Terell Smith [a three-star cornerback out of Snellville, Ga.], we’re going to need some help there. We might need a few offensive linemen to step in, and obviously we need a quarterback.”
Vic Viramontes might be the biggest signing of all for Fleck and his staff.
“One of the reasons why we took him is he has three years left,” Fleck said. “He’s a junior college transfer. I’ll say this: He has three years to play, he accounted for nearly 9,000 yards in his high school career, 95 touchdowns, and not only that, he became the junior college player of the year and the No. 1 junior college [quarterback] out of this class this year. We needed somebody with experience that if we did play him, he already has the experience. Everybody else we have at quarterback right now doesn’t have any experience.”
One of the players who didn’t sign Wednesday was Eden Prairie running back/linebacker Antonio Montero, the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year. The Gophers have offered him a walk-on spot, along with schools such as Wisconsin, Iowa State and Illinois.
“We’ll have some preferred walk-ons and we want to establish a tradition here of preferred walk-ons, for sure, that not only contribute but get scholarships down the road,” Fleck said.
One of the more intriguing recruits signed by the Gophers on Wednesday was Benny Sapp III, the Eden Prairie cornerback who has dealt with several knee injuries but was recruited by schools such as Georgia and Ohio State.
“I think he has to stay healthy,” Fleck said. “I think he’s really going to benefit from being around our medical department and being around our trainers. I think he really will.”
Fleck said the biggest focus of this class was on the offensive line, which included seven of the Gophers’ 26 commitments. He was proud his staff beat out a lot of big-name schools to get those players.
“I feel like we did what we needed to do,” Fleck said. “We’re focused on us, we’re not focused on other teams. But I know that we did our part to make sure that we got what fit us.”
When asked if his recruiting success changes how he feels going into next season, Fleck said it was still part of a larger process.
“I said it in our opening press conference and as we went through Year One, that next year  we’ll probably be a little younger, maybe a little less experienced, but that’s kind of where we are,” he said. “When you decide to kind of start over and build that way, and you’ve got people’s support behind you to do that, that’s what you do. We’ll be younger. But I know people are going to see a difference in the talent. We’re just going to be a little younger than we were this year.”
• The Gophers continue to recruit Georgia hard, with five of the 26 commits coming from that state.
• The Vikings are now tied for No. 2 in Super Bowl odds, according to Bovada out of Las Vegas at 6-1, the same as the Steelers. The Patriots remain the Super Bowl favorite. The Vikings are by far the favorite to represent the NFC in the game.
• How does Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson get a Pro Bowl selection over Case Keenum? Keenum has completed 67.9 percent of his passes (second in the NFL) compared to Wilson’s 61.0 (25th) and has a better passer rating at 98.9 (eighth) to Wilson’s 94.1 (12th). … NFL.com has the Vikings ranked as the second-best team in their NFL power rankings, behind only the Patriots. Analyst Elliot Harrison wrote, “If [Eagles QB] Carson Wentz was a certifiable MVP candidate, then Keenum is, too.”
• The Wolves surely miss forward Nemanja Bjelica, still out because of a foot injury. They have to wonder if he’s going to be able to remain healthy, because he has been a big plus when he is on the floor. And there’s no doubt they have missed his productive minutes off the bench while going 8-6 over the past 14 games.
• Former Centennial star and 6-4 sophomore guard Tyler Peterson scored a season-high 12 points in 27 minutes off the bench for South Dakota in Tuesday night’s 85-82 loss at UCLA.