Carter Coughlin had narrowed his college decision to Minnesota, Ohio State or Oregon, and knew it was time to pick last March. His mother, father, uncle and grandfather — all former Gophers athletes — braced themselves for the news.
“We for sure thought we lost him to Ohio State,” his mother, Jennie, said this month. “I told some friends that day, ‘I think Carter’s just trying to figure out how to tell Mom and Dad.’ ”
Urban Meyer’s staff made a relentless push to lure the four-star linebacker from Eden Prairie to Columbus. Coughlin even got calls from James Laurinaitis, the former Wayzata linebacker who launched his NFL career as a three-time All-America at Ohio State.
Finally, after months of hand-wringing, Coughlin made the decision during a weightlifting session with his personal trainer.
“It just hit me that I wanted to be a Gopher,” he said.
“I wanted to be a part of building the program even more than it was. And I knew if I committed early, I could have an impact on other guys in our state.”
The first thing Coughlin did was text his parents.
“I just dropped the phone and cried,” Jennie said.
Joy overcame Gophers coaches that day, too, when Coughlin delivered the news that still resonates for Minnesota, one week from national signing day.
Coughlin heads the Star Tribune’s 18th Super Preps class, an annual look at the state’s top college football prospects. Scout.com ranks him No. 51 among the nation’s 2016 recruits and No. 4 among outside linebackers.
Josh Helmholdt, Midwest recruiting analyst for Rivals.com, studied Coughlin closely at this month’s U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a showcase for the nation’s top recruits.
“There were two individual practice days where he was the top linebacker on his team that we saw,” Helmholdt said. “So not only did he fare well, he stood out.”
The Gophers coaching staff hopes Coughlin can make an instant impact this fall as a freshman. He had shoulder surgery Jan. 21 but is expected to be at full strength for training camp in August.
Minnesota’s tentative plan is to use him as a pass-rushing linebacker, similar to the role Julian Huff played last fall as a true freshman. Coughlin is 6-4, 220 pounds yet has been timed running the 40-yard dash in a running back-like 4.53 seconds.
For Eden Prairie, he was a sideline-to-sideline tackling machine. He shed blockers and darted into the backfield for tackles. He knocked down passes. He forced fumbles and raced 60 yards for a touchdown. On offense, he had touchdown runs and a touchdown catch from the H-back position. He also blocked punts and annihilated opponents in kickoff coverage.
“He has elite physical tools,” Helmholdt said. “He’s big, he’s rangy. He’s got great speed.”
Coughlin is an A-student who plans to study business at the university. He also has a keen sense of Gophers history, having heard the stories passed down through his family.
His grandfather, Tom Moe, was a two-sport standout for the Gophers. He was named MVP of the 1959 football squad and was one of the top hitters for the 1960 baseball national title team. He also served as the school’s athletic director from 1999-2002.
Moe’s daughter, Jennie (Moe) Coughlin, was a three-time first-team All-Big Ten tennis player for the Gophers. Her brother, Mike Moe, was the Gophers backup quarterback behind Rickey Foggie for two seasons.
Coughlin’s father, Bob, was a defensive lineman for the Gophers football team in 1989 and ’90.
“I’ve known the family for a long time, and they’re just classy people,” Eden Prairie football coach Mike Grant said. “I think they’ve done a great job raising him. He did whatever we asked him to do and was a leader on and off the field.”
Carter Coughlin is the oldest of five children and from the time he was in third grade, he had his father as the coach of his youth football teams.
Coughlin won state championships with Eden Prairie as a sophomore and junior. The Eagles’ 40-game winning streak and string of four consecutive state titles finally ended last October against Totino-Grace in the Class 6A quarterfinals.
“That was the first time I’ve ever experienced a [football] loss, and I hate that feeling more than anything,” Coughlin said. “It feels like my heart’s getting tugged out when we lose. So I think that will definitely give me drive as a Gopher because I don’t want our games ending up like that.”
Coughlin watched the Gophers lose plenty of games over the years, from his family’s season tickets on the 50-yard line. He weathered the Tim Brewster era and was in seventh grade when Jerry Kill’s staff took over following the 2010 season.
“Seeing the Gophers program get completely turned around in five years under that staff made a huge difference,” he said. “If Gopher athletics would have been what they were when I was younger, there’s no way I’d be a Gopher, just because there wasn’t that same feel.”
Coughlin’s whole family attended the Citrus Bowl last year when the Gophers made their first New Year’s Day bowl appearance since 1962. His commitment last March added to the program’s recruiting momentum.
He worked to convince other in-state players to stay in Minnesota, peppering them with direct messages on Twitter. Last summer, he played host to several recruits at his family’s cabin in Pequot Lakes for a bonding session.
Coughlin has dubbed this year’s Gophers recruiting class “The Empire.” It now includes eight current in-state players, and two more — Seth Green and Antoine Winfield Jr. — who grew up playing football in Minnesota.
“I’ve really become good friends with all the commits, at least the in-state guys,” Coughlin said. “It’s enabled us to start off college already as a tight-knit group. Even the outstate guys are going to quickly realize what type of guys we have at Minnesota.”
When Kill retired for health reasons Oct. 28, Coughlin never wavered publicly from his commitment. Privately, he did some soul searching.
“For the first couple hours, I was thinking, ‘Should I reopen my recruitment?’ ” he said. “Just because if the coaching staff goes out, I don’t want to be there; I committed to them.
“But talking to my dad, he was like, ‘That’s not the right step to take, just because Minnesota’s already freaking out because Coach Kill retired. And it’s selfish of you to do anything like that, so don’t take any drastic measures. Let this all calm down and we’ll see what happens.’ ”
The Gophers named defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys the interim coach, and two weeks later on Nov. 11, they removed the interim tag, giving Claeys a three-year contract.
“Obviously, it turned out exactly how I wanted it to,” Coughlin said. “Coach Claeys has been with Coach Kill since forever. So ever since Coach Claeys got the job and the Gophers staff stayed there, I’ve stuck with it.”
During the recruiting process, Coughlin became close with Ohio State defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell. But the Gophers countered with linebackers coach Mike Sherels, a Rochester native who remains a key part of Claeys’ staff.
“Coach Sherels is the reason I wanted to be a Gopher so much, to be honest,” Coughlin said. “All he cares about is making his linebackers the best they can be, as cliché as that sounds. He shows it because he puts in so much time and effort, it’s unbelievable.”
Coughlin is ready to carve his own Gophers legacy. Last fall, he watched his mother get inducted into the ‘M Club’ Hall of Fame, along with former Gophers hockey standout Buzz Schneider.
“Seeing her get inducted into the Hall of Fame was probably the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Coughlin said. “And that’s a dream of mine to make it to that level and be as good at my craft as she was at hers.”