When it comes to football recruiting, the Gophers coaching staff splits up duties among states and regions across the country. Wide receivers coach Matt Simon, for example, recruits Minnesota. Assistant head coach Maurice Linguist has Georgia as a focus. And offensive line coach Ed Warinner scours Ohio.
But this fall, head coach P.J. Fleck had a little extra help on the recruiting trail. His name is Zack Annexstad, and his unofficial territory was IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Annexstad was a senior quarterback at IMG this fall, and he committed to the Gophers as a preferred walk-on in early September. His Minnesota ties run deep: He's from Norseland, near St. Peter, and attended Mankato West High School before transferring to IMG. His father, Scott, was a Gophers and NFL guard in the early 1980s, and his brother, Brock, is a freshman receiver who redshirted with the Gophers this year.
Here's where Annexstad's recruiting prowess enters: He helped sell the Minnesota program to massive IMG teammates Curtis Dunlap Jr., a 6-5, 370-pound, four-star offensive guard, and Daniel Faalele, a 6-9, 400-pound, three-star offensive tackle. Last Wednesday, Annexstad, Dunlap and Faalele all signed their national letters of intent to become Gophers on the first day of the early signing period. The trio helped Minnesota have its highest-ranked recruiting class in more than a decade.
"Those are my guys, and I've been recruiting them for a while to come up here, especially Curtis, and then recently Daniel thought that would be the place for him, too,'' Annexstad said. "We all wanted to take our visits together, and they're my brothers. I'm just happy they're coming up here with me.''
Said Faalele, a native of Melbourne, Australia: "He was the reason why I considered Minnesota.''
Added Dunlap, a Jacksonville, Fla., native: "Him being from there was a comfort zone.''
All three players will enroll at Minnesota in January, getting a jump on their education and a chance to participate in spring practice. The fact that Fleck got the two big linemen to commit — and sign — impressed recruiting analysts.
"I was talking with some guys at IMG before Faalele and Dunlap made their official visits, and they said P.J. Fleck came in there and created a buzz. Kids were excited about him,'' said Josh Helmholdt, Midwest analyst for Rivals.com. "To be able to do that at a program like IMG, which sees every single major Power Five coach through its doors, to have P.J. Fleck go down there and create that kind of buzz speaks volumes.''
Though Annexstad wanted to be a Gopher for quite some time — "ever since I was a little kid, that was my dream school,'' he said — Dunlap and Faalele didn't commit until accompanying their QB on an official visit to Minnesota on the weekend of Dec. 8-10 during the "eLITe18Palooza'' event that featured more than 30 recruits on campus. "The ElitePalooza was phenomenal,'' said Fleck, who got the verbal commitments from Dunlap and Faalele on that Saturday night. "It's about connecting people.''
Here's a look at each of the IMG trio:
Though Annexstad is a preferred walk-on, don't confuse that status with not being a worthy quarterback. The 6-3, 215-pounder has a three-star ranking and turned down scholarship offers from Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, among others, to walk on at Minnesota.
"He could easily have taken the offer to other places,'' Fleck said. "He didn't want to do that. He wanted to do it the hard way and wanted to do it around a culture he believes in and really, really loves.''
Annexstad was IMG's backup quarterback to start the season, but he supplanted four-star recruit and Rutgers signee Artur Sitkowski in the middle of the season. He completed 63 of 112 passes for 940 yards and 10 touchdowns as the Ascenders completed an undefeated season against a schedule filled with national powers. Last year, Annexstad played behind Kellen Mond, now the starter at Texas A&M.
"We were struggling one game, and Zack came in. We felt like he gave us a little bit of an advantage,'' IMG coach Kevin Wright said. "He never relinquished the job from that point on. … He's a very underrated player. He'll make an impact as well [at Minnesota] over the next few years.''
While the Gophers signed junior college dual-threat standout Vic Viramontes, Annexstad intends to compete for the starting job. "I'm going there with the mind-set that I'm trying to be the best quarterback who ever came through Minnesota,'' he said.
Dunlap, Annexstad's roommate at IMG, is impressed with the QB's sacrifice.
"He didn't have to walk on, but he believes in what we're going to do in Minnesota,'' Dunlap said. "It just made it so much more convincing. His actions showed that Minnesota meant a lot to him.''
Changing of the guard
That Dunlap ended up in Minnesota can be traced back to late October and the tension between Florida coach Jim McElwain and the school's administration. Dunlap gave a verbal commitment to the Gators in July, but then McElwain was fired.
"It didn't leave me scrambling, per se. It kind of just let me see other things and other options,'' Dunlap said.
One option was Minnesota and Fleck, who increased his pursuit of Dunlap. The nation's sixth-ranked offensive guard in the Class of 2018 agreed to visit. His first impressions of Minnesota?
"When I got there, I had never seen snow before. I fell in love with the snow, cold weather,'' he said. "The Big Ten is where linemen are made, and I'm going to get a great education. The pieces just kind of fit together.''
He also likes the that he'll be coached by Warinner, who twice was named national offensive line coach of the year by FootballScoop while at Ohio State.
"He has put in some of my favorite offensive linemen in the league — Outland Trophy winners,'' Dunlap said.
Dunlap, the highest-ranked recruit in the Gophers' 2018 class and the highest-ranked offensive line recruit in program history, says adding players from the South, like him, will help Minnesota.
"I'll be honest with you. I firmly believe you need down-South guys on your team to win football games, no matter what division you are in,'' he said. "With us getting so many down-South guys, it's a big plus.''
Said Fleck: "I know he's a four-star, but this kid's a five-star person, and he's got a five-star heart. … This guy is a tremendous player.''
Faalele's massive size makes him the most intriguing prospect in the Gophers recruiting class, but he's a relative newcomer to football. The former rugby and basketball player attended a satellite camp in Australia three years ago, word got back to IMG and Wright took a look and a chance.
"His first year, his junior year, all he did was practice,'' Wright said. "He was just trying to learn the game. He said he didn't know what a first down was, didn't know what a yard was. He started from scratch.''
He has progressed quickly, and he'll join Dunlap in the Under-Armor All-America Game on Jan. 4 in Orlando.
"He's developed about as well as any kid could,'' Wright added. "And he's done it against really high-level competition. … I think he has a chance to play on Sundays. I really do.''
IMG's defense featured Xavier Thomas, the nation's top-ranked strongside defensive end, who signed with Clemson, and Ohio State-bound Taron Vincent, the top-ranked defensive tackle.
"I've improved the most in the mental part of the game — the mentality you have to have in the trenches, and moving people off the ball and against their will,'' Faalele said.
Fleck is impressed with the agility Faalele displays despite being so large.
"We just have to get all those integral parts about playing offensive line — hand placement, pad level, first step, quickness,'' he said
Faalele said he chose Minnesota because it felt right. Like Dunlap, he embraced the weather.
"I loved the coldness there, and Coach Fleck's energy was crazy,'' Faalele said. "I just felt like I connected with Coach Fleck and Coach Warinner.''
It helped, too, that the Annexstad family — with Zack right in the middle — will serve as a second family for Faalele and Dunlap, Wright said.
"He looked for fit and family, that's what he wants,'' Fleck added. "His family is a very tight-knit group, and he wanted that type of feel.''