The Gophers have attempted this before, incorporating a wave of junior college football players who’ve garnered preseason hype as potential impact players.
Forgive fans for being skeptical.
Under Tim Brewster, it rarely worked. Many of his top JUCO recruits fizzled faster than you can say Hayo Carpenter.
Jerry Kill hit some JUCO home runs — Damien Wilson, De’Vondre Campbell, Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Cody Poock.
But James Gillum was viewed as a potential tailback answer in 2012. He averaged 2.7 yards per carry and withered on the bench. Other swings and misses included cornerbacks Jeremy Baltazar and Martez Shabazz.
So Tracy Claeys has bristled when asked about the new junior college influx — five players who could play critical roles for the Gophers this fall.
“The amazing thing is the perception, and I know that perception is a lot more important than fact in a lot of things,” Claeys said. “We’ve always recruited junior colleges when we’ve found holes that need some immediate help. So I don’t worry about it at all.”
The offensive line holes were particularly worrisome last winter. The Gophers had three returning starters — Jonah Pirsig, Tyler Moore and Connor Mayes — and major concerns about depth. Enter:
Garrison Wright: The 6-4, 320-pound left tackle might not fit the taller profile the Gophers targeted when Matt Limegrover did their offensive line recruiting. But Wright has adequate size and is plenty athletic, if he stays healthy after knee surgery this spring. He was an all-conference selection at Butler (Kan.) Community College.
Vincent Calhoun: He might be the most important new player on the roster. The 6-4, 330-pound Atlanta native is strong, aggressive and nimble. He can get off the line and pull from his right guard position. An All-America at Southwest Mississippi Community College, he picked the Gophers over serious interest from Mississippi State.
Donnell Greene: This Georgia native still has three years of eligibility coming from Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College. He fills a glaring need for depth at both tackle positions.
Greene got a late start to training camp, while clearing up an academic issue, but Wright and Calhoun both enrolled in January, allowing them to go through spring practice and the summer workout program.
“Vince and Garrison — they were a godsend for us,” Pirsig said. “We really needed them, and they’ve responded to the call.”
Merrick Jackson: The Gophers also wanted to bolster their run defense with one of those immovable defensive tackles. They found one in Jackson, who teamed with Poock and Gophers safety Ace Rogers at Iowa Western Community College.
The 6-2, 320-pound Jackson is rooming with Poock, who can remember when Jackson weighed 405 pounds in junior college. Poock thinks Jackson can be “scary” good in the Big Ten and intends to help his roommate watch his weight.
“The nutrition staff has already told me, ‘We need your help on the weekends,’ ” Poock said. “That’s something I’ll do for sure because if it’s going to make him better, it’s going to make us better.”
Kobe McCrary: Then there’s tailback McCrary, another product of Butler CC. He was the headliner in the Gophers’ Aug. 13 scrimmage at TCF Bank Stadium, rushing 14 times for 89 yards. Billed as a bigger, short-yardage running back, the 6-1, 235-pound McCrary has shown why he shouldn’t be confused with former Gophers steamroller Rodrick Williams. McCrary hits the hole faster and can make tacklers miss.
Rodney Smith will be the Gophers’ lead tailback with fellow sophomore Shannon Brooks out because of a broken foot. But McCrary could be the next option.
Fans won’t be convinced until they see these players produce in games. But for now, it appears the Gophers addressed some critical needs with these JUCO signings.
Looking ahead, the next junior college target for the Gophers could be a quarterback. Mitch Leidner is a senior, so that job could be wide open next spring.
The four internal candidates — Demry Croft, Seth Green, Conor Rhoda and Mark Williams — have thrown a combined 18 college passes. The Gophers hope one can blossom and seize the job. If not, they’ll need other options.
Selecting JUCO players can be hit or miss, but that goes for anything in recruiting.
“We’ve always started with the high school base and always will,” Claeys said. “But every now and then, either through injuries or because you made recruiting mistakes, you’re going to be a little thin in some areas. We’ve been doing that for the last 20 years, filling in with junior college kids.”