One of P.J. Fleck’s first calls after becoming Gophers coach on Jan. 6 was to Tanner Morgan, a prep quarterback from Kentucky who’d committed to play for him at Western Michigan.
Morgan had graduated early from high school so he could enroll at WMU, and participate in spring practice. If Morgan had followed through and started class Jan. 9, he wouldn’t have been able to join Fleck at Minnesota.
“Talk about a tense situation,” Fleck said Wednesday, explaining why he was so relieved to have Morgan in the fold on national signing day.
Calling it a “monumental day for Gophers football,” Fleck gave detailed stories on all 25 signees during a 55-minute news conference. He listed their high school coaches’ names, often mentioning their parents and grade-point averages, while sprinkling in countless Fleck-isms along the way.
The 36-year-old coach described the class his staff reconstructed in 26 days, after he replaced ousted coach Tracy Claeys.
“I think we knocked it out of the park for the time frame we had and the resources we were given and the needs that had to be addressed,” Fleck said.
When Fleck took over, the Gophers had 15 players committed in a class that ranked 72nd in the 247Sports Composite, which blends the four major recruiting services into one. Nine of those Claeys signees decommitted, but Wednesday, Minnesota’s class ranked 57th in that same composite, and 12th in the Big Ten.
“Now, did I say we got 15 five-stars and went out and turned the world upside down?” Fleck said. “No, we got the right fit for our needs.”
The Gophers have major needs, in part, because 10 players are suspended indefinitely for their roles in an alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault. All 10 had recent hearings, appealing rulings made by the university’s office for Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action (EOAA), and await rulings this week.
The Gophers must replace departing senior quarterback Mitch Leidner, and two players facing one-year EOAA suspensions — Seth Green and Mark Williams — are quarterbacks.
Fleck signed three QBs Wednesday, but Morgan likely is the best fit for offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca’s high-efficiency passing system. Morgan is a three-star, pro-style quarterback who had a legitimate offer from Louisville.
“What we love about this kid is he’s a decisive decisionmaker and incredibly accurate,” Fleck said. “Very smart student and student of the game, and he’s a gym rat.”
Five of the Gophers facing EOAA sanctions are defensive backs, including starting cornerback KiAnte Hardin and starting safety Antoine Winfield Jr. The Gophers also need to replace two senior starting DBs, Damarius Travis and Jalen Myrick.
“Who knows how many defensive backs we’ll have going into spring ball and next season?” Fleck said. “We were able to get three defensive backs [in this class], and I don’t think we missed on any of them.”
All three DB signees had other offers from Power Five Conference schools — Adam Beck (flipped from Texas Tech), Kendarian Handy-Holly (offers from Florida, Mississippi, etc.) and Justus Harris (offers from Vanderbilt, Rutgers).
But the Gophers also lost two talented cornerback commitments as signing day neared. Trey Creamer and Ihmir Smith-Marsette both flipped to Iowa.
Two other Gophers commitments — offensive lineman Eric Abojei (Cooper) and defensive tackle Tyrone Chambers (Lyndhurst, Ohio) — fell through because of academics. Chambers signed with Toledo on Wednesday. Abojei still hopes to get a qualifying test score but has Iowa Western Community College as a backup.
Another key Gophers need is at wide receiver. With Drew Wolitarsky graduating, they don’t have another player at the position who made more than 18 catches last season.
Fleck signed three wide receivers: Demetrius Douglas (flipped from Oregon), Harry Van Dyne (offers from Kansas and Iowa) and Chris Autman-Bell.
Autman-Bell and Morgan are two of the six players who flipped from Western Michigan to Minnesota the first night after Fleck took the job.
Fleck called Autman-Bell a “game-changer” and compared him to a player he had as wide receivers coach at Rutgers.
“The last time I saw hands like his, it was Mohamed Sanu, who’s going to play in the Super Bowl with the Atlanta Falcons,” Fleck said.
Fleck admitted that comparisons can be a reach but still described 5-10, 205-pound running back Mohamed Ibrahim (Olney, Md.) like this: “He’s got a Barry Sanders kind of make-you-miss, with that Christian Okoye run-you-over.”
Fleck didn’t forget East Ridge kicker Grant Ryerse, either.
“He’s ranked as the No. 4 kicker in the entire country,” Fleck said. “He’s got a 4.13 GPA. So not only is he an elite kicker, he’s an elite smart kicker.”