College coaches often mention their quest to find recruits with “length and speed” on National Signing Day. On Wednesday, Jerry Kill could have used those same terms to describe the road trips his assistant coaches took to reel in this year’s Gophers class.
Kill smiled and shook his head when asked to explain how the Gophers found Rashad Still, a 6-5, 200-pound receiver from El Paso, Texas, who had no other offers.
“Pat Poore’s crazy,” Kill said, referring to the Gophers running backs coach, who recruits Texas for the staff.
Poore used to coach in Texas and has good connections there, but El Paso is a 10-hour drive from Houston, where the Gophers found offensive lineman Tyler Moore.
“Pat talked to somebody at a high school who says, ‘Hey, there’s a kid in El Paso that a lot of people don’t know about. … He’s a heck of an athlete, and he’s a steal.’ ”
The Gophers hope they found a few of those among the 24 signees in a class that fell to 51st in the nation and ninth in the Big Ten, in the latest Rivals.com rankings.
Last year, Rivals ranked Minnesota’s class 52nd nationally and eighth in the Big Ten after ranking Kill’s previous two classes last in the conference. Regardless of the rankings, Kill’s central mission to find talent that fits his system hasn’t changed.
The Gophers looked high and low the past two years, trying to bolster their wide receiving corps. They’re on a mission to improve a passing offense that has ranked toward the bottom of the Big Ten.
They searched primarily for “length and speed,” and they believe they found an abundance with four receivers from last year’s recruiting class — Isaiah Gentry (6-4, 193 pounds), Desmond Gant (6-3, 218), Melvin Holland (6-3, 191) and Jerry Gibson (6-3, 223).
“The guys we redshirted [last season], in some ways you wish we would have played them last year,” Kill said. “But they’re going to be outstanding.”
This year’s crop brought Still and another 6-5, 200-pounder in Hunter Register, from Lafayette, La.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said Register “could be an immediate impact guy for us.”
The Gophers have an obvious need, as tight end Maxx Williams is headed for the NFL draft after leading the team in receiving by a wide margin last season. Isaac Fruechte graduated, and Donovahn Jones was dismissed from the program.
That leaves KJ Maye (16 catches) and Drew Wolitarsky (10 catches) as the only returning players who made more than five receptions last year. The Gophers are hoping the influx of receiving talent will help quarterback Mitch Leidner’s development, too.
“To give you an idea: Nobody recruited Desmond Gant, nobody,” Kill said. “[Gant’s high school coach] Kurt Becker called me and said, ‘This guy’s a freak.’ ”
Kill said Gant recently posted a 40-inch vertical jump. The coach also said Gentry’s time in the 40-yard dash is “4.4-something.” Kill has a nickname for Gentry: “Gunpowder.”
“I feel like we’ve got people who can take the top off the coverage,” Kill said.
The Gophers have been drawn to big, physical receivers in recent years. Maye plays slot receiver at 5-10, but Wolitarsky is 6-3, 226 pounds.
“I think Nick Saban said, ‘Small players get tired, and they’re still small. Big players get tired, and they’re still big,’ ” Kill said.
This recruiting class features a big quarterback, too. Demry Croft, a dual-threat passer from Rockford, Ill., is listed at 6-5, but he said he has grown a half-inch.
He grew up playing quarterback but didn’t make his first varsity start until the third game of his junior season at Boylan Catholic High School.
“When he came to camp [at TCF Bank Stadium last June], we didn’t know that much about him,” Kill said. “But we put him on the clock, and he runs 4.6. When he started throwing the ball, throwing routes, you go, ‘Man, this kid’s different.’ ”
The Gophers felt Croft slipped through the cracks with so many schools offering quarterbacks scholarships earlier in their high school careers. Minnesota was nervous that Penn State would steal him away.
“He’s got all the tools, and you can’t turn down somebody that athletic,” Kill said. “So to me, he’s kind of a steal so to speak because I think at a different time in a different situation it would have been tough to get him.”
Under-recruited players with length and speed often look like steals on signing day. Time will tell if these players prove to be actual thefts for the Gophers.