There aren’t any players from this year’s Gophers recruiting class in the Rivals 250, or the ESPN300, or any other ballyhooed list of the nation’s most elite college football prospects. There is no consensus four-star recruit on his way to Minnesota such as Jeff Jones, who provided a statewide thrill last year when he donned a Gophers cap on National Signing Day at Minneapolis Washburn.
For a team coming off its first New Year’s Day bowl game in a half-century, and Jerry Kill being honored as the Big Ten Coach of the Year, this year’s class might seem a little ho-hum.
Recruiting analysts, however, see potential in the list of about 25 players expected to sign with Minnesota on Wednesday. The Gophers addressed key needs for their offensive line and defensive backfield. There are some budding playmakers, too, from quarterback Demry Croft, to wide receivers Hunter Register and Rashad Still, to a trio of running backs — Shannon Brooks, Jonathan Femi-Cole and James Johannesson — who combined for nearly 6,000 yards as high school seniors.
“This class doesn’t have that home-run guy, which Jeff Jones was, but it’s more balanced top to bottom,” said Kyle Goblirsch, who tracks every move the Gophers make in recruiting for 247Sports.com. “Really, it was more about filling needs, and there’s a lot of talent coming.”
On Tuesday, Rivals.com had this Gophers class ranked 46th in the nation and seventh in the Big Ten. That’s up from 52nd in the nation and eighth in the Big Ten last year.
Rivals ranked the Gophers’ classes last in the Big Ten in 2012 and 2013, so Kill’s fifth class is more proof the program is trending upward. But the Gophers are still watching prominent players leave the state. Cretin-Derham Hall defensive end Jashon Cornell (Ohio State) and DeLaSalle tackle Drayton Carlberg (Oregon) are two that got away this year, joining Chanhassen center Frank Ragnow (Arkansas) and East Ridge center J.C. Hassenauer (Alabama) from last year’s class.
The good news for Gophers fans is Kill’s classes have a habit of outperforming their signing-day ranking.
But is this class really an upgrade over last year’s? Analysts are split. The 2014 class looks more impressive in retrospect than it did last February. Nine of the 21 signees played last fall as true freshmen, helping the Gophers to their first five-win Big Ten season since 2003. Four saw regular playing time on the defensive line, two were second-string linebackers and cornerback Craig James was the Big Ten’s fifth-leading punt returner.
Those seven contributors weren’t even the names that excited analysts the most on Signing Day last February. The Gophers can’t wait to unveil Jones, along with the others who redshirted last fall, including fellow running back Rodney Smith, wide receivers Isaiah Gentry, Desmond Gant and Melvin Holland Jr., and tight end Jerry Gibson.
“I don’t think this class is as good as last year’s, I just don’t,” said Zach Johnson, who runs GopherIllustrated.com, the local Rivals.com affiliate. “Part of that is offensive line really isn’t a sexy position. But it’s what they needed, so they took care of needs this year.”
The most coveted player in Minnesota’s class is Quinn Oseland, an offensive lineman from Springfield, Ill. Among his other reported offers were Oregon, Michigan State, Mississippi State and Oklahoma State.
“Quinn Oseland has potential to be an All-American at Minnesota,” said Tom Lemming, longtime recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network.
Oseland is 6-6, 310 pounds, which might sound huge for an incoming freshman. But the five offensive linemen in this recruiting class average 6-6, 294. The list includes Red Wing’s Nick Connelly (6-7, 275), Chaska’s Bronson Dovich (6-6, 290), Houston’s Tyler Moore (6-4, 300) and Akron, Ohio’s Ted Stieber (6-6, 295).
“Offensive linemen don’t come to campus anymore 6-4, 230 pounds and you’ve just got to wait three years to get them up to playing weight,” Johnson said.
Tyler Moore had an offer from Texas, but the Longhorns wanted him to grayshirt, which means he would have had to delay his enrollment until January 2016. Instead, he chose to graduate from high school early and is already enrolled at Minnesota, looking forward to spring practice.
Moore is a consensus three-star recruit, just like everyone else in this class. The 247Sports.com Composite Index combines the ratings for the various recruiting services, and according to that metric, Jones is the only four-star recruit Kill has brought to Minnesota.
Dior Johnson, a safety from Southfield, Mich., drew a four-star rating from Rivals.com. He decommitted from Wake Forest, joining high school teammate Ray Buford among the seven defensive backs the Gophers are bringing in with this class.
“Buford was a kid that didn’t play much, if at all, his junior year because of an injury,” Johnson said. “That’s when a lot of kids make a name for themselves. So he didn’t have as much attention, but he had a huge senior season.”
Kill’s staff never shies away from taking chances on raw athletes with length and speed that other schools might overlook. Eric Murray, for example, didn’t have any other offers coming from Milwaukee’s inner city, but he developed into an All-Big Ten cornerback.
Gophers recruiting coordinator Billy Glasscock noted that 30 of the 44 players on last fall’s two-deep roster arrived with no other offers from a “power-five” conference school (Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, ACC).
Notable projects this year include Croft at quarterback and Still, a wide receiver from El Paso who didn’t begin playing football until his junior year. Winston DeLattiboudere, from Ellicott City, Md., is an undersized defensive end at 215 pounds. But he didn’t turn 17 until last week.
“I called Jerry Kill the Bill Snyder of Minnesota, because he’s doing it through development,” ESPN recruiting analyst Tom Luginbill said, comparing Kill to the oft-praised Kansas State coach. “He’s doing it through evaluation of not just the immediate guy, but what a guy might be two to three years down the road, which is the hardest thing to do.”
Keeping kids at home
Kill’s staff has long prided itself on outperforming the recruiting rankings, but that hasn’t eased the sting of seeing coveted in-state recruits head elsewhere.
Lemming thinks the Gophers are in position to feast on a fertile in-state crop next year. From the Class of 2016, quarterback Seth Green already has chosen Oregon, but his East Ridge teammate, Jojo Garcia, is committed to the Gophers. Eden Prairie linebacker Carter Coughlin plans to pick between Ohio State, Oregon and Minnesota later this month. He went to Florida to watch the Gophers play in the Citrus Bowl. His father, Bob, was a Gophers defensive lineman, and his grandfather, Tom Moe, was the school’s athletic director.
“I think right now, local kids are starting to realize that Minnesota’s the real deal,” Lemming said. “This is my 37th year doing this. I’ve watched how programs develop, and they’re doing it the right way. Kirk Ferentz did it that way at Iowa, Barry Alvarez did it at Wisconsin, and now Jerry Kill’s doing it at Minnesota.”
But Lemming also has seen practice facilities around the Big Ten and said that’s an area where the Gophers have fallen way behind. Minnesota plans to break ground on a new athletics training complex before next fall.
“With the coaching staff they have in place, that’s all they need to be a perennial favorite in the Big Ten,” Lemming said. “Once that’s built, there’ll be no stopping the Gophers.”