One of the biggest challenges the Gophers football team will have to navigate this season is how it handles success. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said that extends off the football field to recruiting as well.
So far, Fleck and his coaching staff have gotten verbal commitments from five four-star players for the Class of 2021, according to 247Sports.com, which also has the Gophers’ class ranked ninth in the country. That equals the number of four-star recruits the team signed from 2018-20.
Fleck said the biggest goal in recruiting is not to ignore the right kind of players with high character and values, just because other prospects might appear more talented.
“We said all along we’re not going to sacrifice the type of person that we bring into the program,” Fleck said. “But any time you can continue to elevate the skill of the program, you want to be able to do that. I feel like that’s what we’re continually doing.”
What makes the Gophers’ 2021 class even more impressive is several of the 18 commitments weren’t able to visit campus because of the shutdown of in-person recruiting.
“Recruiting is going really well,” Fleck said. “The one thing that is unique about this time is everything is done virtually. But when you look at it, over half of our kids who have committed to us haven’t even visited campus yet, which is a credit to the University of Minnesota, our state, our recruiting department, our coaches. And it has been unique in the fact that we get everybody in the room at one point and one time — whether it’s mom, dad, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, plus the recruit.
“Usually you have to schedule those accordingly and there may be [a family meeting] once every few weeks. These are almost daily we’re able to talk to parents live on FaceTime, and I think that has been really beneficial to our staff.”
With uncertainty about when college teams will get back to action, Fleck said the current roster has been having to learn workouts over the computer.
“It’s very different because everything is virtual, especially with our players working out,” he said. “Everything is voluntary for all the safety precautions and safety reasons. But we have been keeping up with all of the position meetings, the virtual voice-overs, the team meetings, recruiting. So it has been really unique. Finding creative ways to take the next right step is what this is all about.”
Does he believe players are finding a good outlet for exercise?
“Everyone is able to work out, but everyone is able to work out in a little different level, whether they have to stay inside, whether they have places to work out, depending on what their state and local governments have been able to tell them and what they’re opening and what they’re keeping closed,” Fleck said. “But I think our players for the most part have done a great job of keeping up with [strength and conditioning] coach [Dan] Nichol’s workouts, which are all voluntary. It has been exciting to watch them go.”
And while the team is focused on individual workouts at this time, the coaching staff is also using this time away from on-field workouts to prepare for a difficult schedule.
“I think this gives us more time to be able to study our opponents right now, especially with conference opponents, being able to dissect them and take a lot longer than just doing it in the month of June,” Fleck said. “We have been doing it the past few weeks and we’re going to continue to do it all the way through June. It gives you a lot of time to be able to focus on your upcoming conference opponents, for sure.”
Fleck said he had no issues taking a pay cut this season, while the school and athletic department deal with fallout from the uncertainty of sports being shut down around the globe because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“Anything we can continue to do to be able to help the university, I think that [athletic director] Mark Coyle and President [Joan] Gable have shown incredible leadership and we’re honored to follow suit,” Fleck said.
Improve on history?
Once the schedule resumes, does he believe this team can be better than last year’s historic 11-2 squad?
“We’re just going to keep changing our best,” Fleck said. “It’s a completely new team. This year has nothing to do with last year. We have to find a way to be better today than we were yesterday.”
And while the team returns six players who were All-Big Ten last season — quarterback Tanner Morgan, wide receiver Rashod Bateman, offensive linemen Blaise Andries, Curtis Dunlap Jr. and Daniel Faalele and defensive back Coney Durr — Fleck said he is not concerned with the individual talent coming back.
“We have some great players on this football team, but one thing I like about these guys is they’re better as a team than they are as individuals,” Fleck said. “I think they showed that last year. We need them to continue to show that this year.”
Does he think anyone could surprise?
“We’ll see,” he said. “Once we get back with our football team, we’ll see who has been able to earn those opportunities. It’s just too early to tell right now.”
One thing Fleck is certain of is there isn’t going to be a letdown from this team or this coaching staff.
“We don’t think that way,” he said. “We don’t think that way whatsoever. That’s not even close to being in our program. You know that.”
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