Kill's recruiting class has only one Minnesotan

  • Article by: JOE CHRISTENSEN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 3, 2013 - 12:01 AM

The Gophers likely will list only one Minnesotan among their football recruits on Wednesday.

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James Onwualu (10) of Cretin-Derham-Hall is viewed as the top recruit out of Minnesota this year. He chose Notre Dame but also was offered scholarships by Michigan and Ohio State.

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Jerry Kill's third recruiting class as Gophers football coach will be unveiled Wednesday, and barring an unforeseen change, it will include just one scholarship player from Minnesota.

The Gophers offered scholarships to four Minnesotans and nabbed one -- Wayzata linebacker Chris Wipson, who had surgery in November to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.

The three who turned down Minnesota to go elsewhere are James Onwualu, a wide receiver enrolled at Notre Dame already; Keelon Brookins, a defensive back enrolled at Wisconsin, and Malik Rucker, a defensive back headed to Iowa.

Minnesota's Division I talent crop is down this year, recruiting analysts say, and the Gophers already have gone to work on next year's class. On Saturday, four-star running back Jeff Jones of Minneapolis Washburn became their first commitment for 2014, according to GopherIllustrated.com.

That news helped answer critics who wondered why there aren't more Minnesota scholarship players in this year's class. With 18 available scholarships -- down from 27 last year -- Kill and his staff went national, plucking players from 12 other states, including recruiting hotbeds California, Florida, Texas, Ohio and Georgia.

They landed California's all-time leading prep receiver (Drew Wolitarsky), a tight end from Indiana who picked Minnesota over Miami (Nate Wozniak) and a running back from Michigan (Berkley Edwards) whose older brother Braylon is an NFL receiver.

The Gophers also have drawn walk-on commitments from at least six Minnesota high school players, including DeLaSalle lineman Chad Fahning.

But Rivals.com currently ranks this year's Gophers recruiting class No. 67 in the nation, and 12th in the Big Ten. Kill declined an interview request for this story, noting that he won't talk publicly about recruiting again until Wednesday.

In-state misses

Kill's 2011 recruiting class, unveiled two months after he was hired, included five of Minnesota's top 10 players, as ranked by Rivals.com. Last year's class included eight of Minnesota's top 10, so this year brought a sudden drop in incoming local talent.

Rivals.com ranks Eden Prairie linebacker Jack Cottrell, a three-star recruit, as Minnesota's fourth-best player. He's heading to Boston College.

"Not hitting on any of those four, I think it hurts them, yes," said Josh Helmholdt, Midwest recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. "Those are the guys that you look to build the core base of your program, the in-state guys."

But Minnesota had slim pickings this year, with only four players given three or more stars by Rivals.com. There were nine such players from Minnesota in each of the past two recruiting classes; four is the fewest the state has produced in at least a decade.

CBS Sports Network analyst Tom Lemming, who has followed recruiting for more than 30 years, said this is the thinnest crop of Minnesota talent he can remember.

"James Onwualu is a very good player," he said. "After that, there's a lot of question marks with everybody. Normally Minnesota's better than Wisconsin, Iowa and Indiana even. So this seems to be bad."

Lemming believes the Gophers were wise to focus their efforts out of state.

"Jerry Kill's a very good recruiter," he said. "That's why Northern Illinois [Kill's previous employer] did so well last season; all those guys were his starters. ... The key is to go to the best talent, and if you win, nobody's going to care [where they're from]."

Tough sell

Of the 16 players committed to Minnesota, entering Friday, none rated higher than a three-star recruit in 247Sports.com's composite index.

Onwualu, the Cretin-Derham Hall standout who also had offers from Michigan and Ohio State, is one of 16 four-star recruits heading to Notre Dame, and the Fighting Irish also landed two five-star recruits.

"Those nationally recruited guys are tough; no [Gophers coach has] ever gotten them," Lemming said.

Brookins, a defensive back from Tartan, committed to the Gophers first before changing his mind and picking Wisconsin. He tore the ACL in his left knee the summer before his junior year but returned for Tartan's final game of 2011. Then, after committing to the Gophers last February, he won a state championship in the 200-meter dash and had a standout performance at a Nike combine in Illinois.

"After that, Wisconsin started recruiting me again, hard," Brookins said. "I went down to Wisconsin for football camp and they offered me [a scholarship]. The next week, my mom came down with me, and we walked through [Madison's] campus, talked to the coaches, met with professors. I just felt it was a better fit for me. I wanted to get away from home."

Three games into his senior season, Brookins tore the ACL in his other knee. The Badgers honored their scholarship offer, and he stuck with them even after coach Bret Bielema bolted for Arkansas.

Toward the future

Rucker, a three-star defensive back from Cooper, chose Iowa, even though the Hawkeyes stumbled to 4-8 this year while the Gophers went 6-7.

"Minnesota was in the mix, but I feel like they played with me a little bit," Rucker said. "Before they started recruiting me hard, I felt like I was a second option."

Wipson is listed as a two-star recruit by Rivals.com, but he's a three-star and ranks fifth among Minnesota high school players in the 247Sports.com composite. He committed to the Gophers in July and had no other Big Ten offers.

"I like what Coach Kill's doing," Wipson said. "I think they have a really good plan for the future, and it just seems like the program is on a mission to become one of the better teams in the Big Ten."

The Gophers did land two of Wipson's Wayzata teammates as preferred walk-ons, receiver Jeff Borchardt and offensive lineman Chandler Wright. The Gophers' other in-state walk-on commitments include Fahning, Prior Lake tight end Nick Hart, Cretin-Derham Hall quarterback Conor Rhoda and Lakeville South center Matt Leidner.

The Gophers also offered to make Osseo running back Bridgeport Tusler a preferred walk-on, but the Star Tribune's Metro Player of the Year took a full ride to South Dakota State.

"His first choice was the U of M," Osseo coach Derrin Lamker said. "The Gophers must have a great recruiting class this year to be able to avoid Mr. Tusler."

Helmholdt believes Minnesota's 2014 crop will be better. Jones, for one, ranks among Rivals.com's top 250 players in the country from that class. He also has offers from Wisconsin, Iowa and Michigan State, among others.

"I think he's a legitimate high-BCS-caliber running back," Helmholdt said. "So he's a guy who immediately jumps off the page at you."

On Saturday, Jones jumped right into the Gophers' laps. They'll spend the next 12 months hoping he stays committed.

Staff writer Jim Paulsen contributed to this report.

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