They came to Minnesota together in early January 2017, three football recruits following coach P.J. Fleck from Western Michigan to Minnesota and committing to the Gophers on the day he accepted the head coaching job. A fourth pledged two days later, and together that quartet has celebrated some incredible highs, endured some disappointing lows and helped raise the expectations of a program.

Mohamed Ibrahim, Tanner Morgan, John Michael Schmitz and Chris Autman-Bell became the "Encore Four'' to start the 2022 season, four standout players returning for a sixth season made available by the NCAA's COVID-19 waiver of 2020.

On Saturday afternoon, it'll be an Encore Three getting recognized on Senior Day, as the Gophers face Iowa for not only Floyd of Rosedale but also for positioning in the Big Ten West Division title chase. Autman-Bell was lost for the season to a knee injury on Sept. 17 and plans to return for a seventh season in 2023.

That leaves one last go-round together for Ibrahim, one of the nation's top running backs; Schmitz, who might be the nation's best center; and possibly Morgan, the program's career wins leader at quarterback whose status is questionable because of an injury.

"They've meant everything to me personally and then to this program because a lot of them never even saw campus and within a day were able to say, 'Hey, I'll go with you,' '' Fleck said. "That takes an incredible amount of courage and belief in something that's bigger than you.''

They're not the only ones who will play their final home game. Defensive starters Mariano Sori-Marin, Thomas Rush, Jordan Howden and Terell Smith, plus kicker Matthew Trickett, are fifth-year seniors with no eligibility left. Sixth-year guard Axel Ruschmeyer and seventh-year wideout Clay Geary will say home-field goodbyes, too.

Then there's standout safety Tyler Nubin and tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, both of whom have a year of eligibility remaining but might be attractive to NFL teams this spring. "We'll leave a light on for him,'' Fleck said of Nubin. Spann-Ford, meanwhile, said he wouldn't walk in the Senior Day ceremony and added, "We'll see,'' about his decision on returning in 2023.

After the pregame ceremony, there is a game to be played, and it's an important one for the Gophers. Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois and Purdue are tied atop the West with 4-3 conference records. To reach the Big Ten Championship Game, the Gophers' best path is to beat Iowa for the first time since 2014, then win at Wisconsin, while Illinois and Purdue absorb one loss each.

A career appreciation

The availability of Morgan, the school's career wins leader with 33, likely will be a game-time decision. He missed last week's game against Northwestern because of what Fleck termed an upper body injury and was out for the Penn State game Oct. 22 because of a concussion. Redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis, who's started two games, is in line to start if Morgan isn't cleared.

Fleck acknowledged that for Morgan, "it's not ending the way he wanted it to end with his own personal journey.''

By passing for school records of 3,253 yards and 30 touchdowns in the magical 11-2 season of 2019, Morgan helped raise expectations to where a nine-win season like last year was viewed by many as a disappointment because the Gophers didn't win the Big Ten West.

Though Morgan hasn't been able to match those 2019 numbers, he's helped the Gophers reach a bowl for the fourth time in the past five seasons. And he's made a big impact off the field with his charitable work. Morgan is a semifinalist for both the Wuerffel Trophy, considered college football's top award for community service, and the Witten Collegiate Man of the Year Award.

"Honestly, it chokes me up a little bit when I think about him being done playing,'' Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said.

In for the long haul

Schmitz is a study in perseverance. The 6-4, 320-pounder didn't see the field right away, breaking into the starting lineup six games into the 2019 season before seizing the job down the stretch. Over the past three seasons, he's improved to the point that he's a semifinalist for both the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award.

He also should be a shoo-in to be a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation's top center. Pro Football Focus College grades Schmitz as not only the top center in FBS but also the top offensive lineman overall.

"It was just trusting the process,'' Schmitz said. "It goes back to when we got here in 2017, just seeing the guys before me and letting them show me the ropes. It's just special to see how far this program has come and to see where this program is going in the future.''

An all-time Gophers great

Benefiting from linemen like Schmitz, and vice versa, is Ibrahim, who's 390 yards away from matching Darrell Thompson's school record of 4,654 yards. With 4,264 yards, Ibrahim needs to average 130.3 in his final three games to pass Thompson. The Baltimore native also leads the nation with 18 rushing TDs and is fifth in yards at 1,261.

At a generously listed height of 5-10 and 210 pounds, Ibrahim earned his chops as a freshman during the team's "Sunday Night Football'' practice sessions in 2017. Fleck quickly described Ibrahim's style as a "bowling ball going downhill with razor blades attached,'' and in 2018 he showed his potential by rushing for 1,160 yards as Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks dealt with injuries.

"Talk about the king of the toos,'' Fleck said. "Too small, too short, too slow, too everything. And all he's done is prove himself.''

Technically, Ibrahim could return for the 2023 season if he received a medical waiver from the NCAA for the 2021 season when he tore an Achilles' tendon in the opener. But he'll turn 25 in September, and indications are that he's ready for his next career step. The Gophers announced that Ibrahim will be one of 15 players making their final home appearances.

Together, Ibrahim, Schmitz and Morgan will try to send their home careers out in style.

"They have left a legacy here for hopefully the future generations of what Golden Gopher football can look like, on and off the field,'' Fleck said.