One of the advantages of writing a story for a website, as opposed to the actual printed newspaper, is the lack of strict space constraints. While a story for the print product might be limited to 600 words, a writer can stretch out a bit on the internet.
The start of college football's early signing period on Wednesday is a perfect example. With the Gophers signing 18 incoming freshmen, one transfer and three preferred walk-ons for the 2022 class and coach P.J. Fleck speaking for nearly an hour during the Signing Day Social and for 20 minutes in a news conference that followed, there were plenty of story lines available. Here are more of them:
Defensive line is a priority
The Gophers signed a pair of four-star defensive linemen in Anthony Smith of Shippensburg, Pa., and Trey Bixby of Eden Prairie, along with Jacksonville's Hayden Schwartz, a highly productive player whose father Bryan was an NFL linebacker. They'll bolster a group that will suffer heavy offseason losses, with stalwarts such as tackles Micah Dew-Treadway and Nyles Pinckney exhausting their eligibility and ends Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo likely headed to the NFL draft.
Don't be surprised if Fleck turns to the transfer portal for help at defensive tackle. The Gophers struck gold with Dew-Treadway and Pinckney, who've been steady performers in their Minnesota careers.
"We've got some young guys at the defensive tackle position within our program that I think are going to have a really good spring and need to have a really good spring,'' Fleck said. "… We're looking at some type of depth in there.''
Fleck also pointed to the Feb. 2 opening of the traditional signing period still being in play.
"We're always looking for playmakers and always looking for help up front,'' he said.
One transfer portal target is former Western Kentucky defensive back Beanie Bishop, a first-team All-Conference USA selection who announced on Twitter that he has received an offer from the Gophers. Bishop was a redshirt sophomore this season.
Ten will enroll early
Ten players in the Gophers' Class of 2022 will begin their college careers in January as early enrollees. They are tight end Spencer Alvarez, linebacker Maverick Baranowski, defensive backs Coleman Bryson, Rhyland Kelly, Tariq Watson and transfer Ryan Stapp, offensive lineman Cade McConnell, defensive lineman Hayden Schwartz, running back Zach Evans and wide receiver Ike White.
"You get a six-month head start,'' Fleck said. "… It allows them to get in here without the pressure of the season right around the corner and to be able to see how we do things, through winter conditioning, through meetings with coaches, through our weight room, our nutrition staff, academics. There's a lot less overall pressure.''
Recruiting the state
The Gophers extended scholarship offers to eight of the top 15 Minnesota prospects in the 247Sports composite ratings of major recruiting services, and five of them signed with Minnesota: No. 2-ranked Bixby of Eden Prairie, No. 5 Kristen Hoskins, a wide receiver from Alexandria; No. 9 Joey Gerlach, a linebacker from Woodbury; No. 11 Tony Nelson, an offensive tackle from Tracy; and No. 14 Alvarez, a tight end from Columbia Heights.
Those in the top 15 that were offered scholarships by the Gophers but signed elsewhere were No. 1 Lucas Heyer, an offensive tackle from Hill-Murray who signed with Stanford; No. 3 Eli King of Caledonia, who will play basketball at Iowa State; and No. 8 Deylin Hasert, an offensive lineman from Marshall who signed with Iowa State.
Fleck wants the best players from Minnesota to stay home as long as it's the right decision for all involved.
"It's huge to be able to keep Minnesota kids here in Minnesota – but again, the right Minnesota kids that fit us and want to come here,'' Fleck said. "Florida doesn't get every Florida kid. Miami doesn't get every Florida kid. Florida State doesn't get every Florida kid. That's not how it works. Just because we're in Minnesota and just because we have a handful or two handfuls of players who can play at this level ever year, doesn't mean every kid should come here. … I want them to, but if they're not the right fit or it's not for them, I don't want that for either party.''
Fleck also revealed the reality that faces every college football coach during recruiting.
"You're never perfect,'' he said. "Everybody looks at you to be perfect in those decisions, and you're not. It's an organized guess, just like the [NFL] draft.''
Large and nimble
Tony Nelson, a 6-6, 265-pound offensive tackle from Tracy, Minn., caught Fleck's eye not just because of his blocking, but also is overall athletic profile. Fleck said Nelson can reach 9 feet in the standing broad jump and has surpassed 60 feet in the shot put.
"One thing that took me over the edge in being able to commit to him was watching him play defensive end,'' Fleck said. "I'm not saying I'd take him as a defensive end, but you're talking about a guy who plays both ways and as big as he is, and coming off the edge and the 'how,' all of that matters to me. … We'll bet on him all day long because of his athleticism.''
A Gopher from an early age
Cade Conzemius, a preferred walk-on wide receiver from Minnetonka, is a Gophers legacy. His father Justin was a Gophers linebacker and captain in the mid-1990s. Wednesday during the Signing Day Social, Fleck used a home video that Justin supplied during his introduction of Cade.
In the video, a 3-year-old Cade is singing the "Minnesota Rouser.'' He gets to the "Rah for the U of M'' lyrics and starts the spelling portion of the song, "M-I-T-S. Minnesota! Minnesota! Yay, Gophers.''
"He'll never live that one down,'' Fleck said, laughing.
Winning over Grandma
When making an in-home visit to running back Zach Evans in Heath, Texas, Fleck not only had to impress Evans' parents, Courtney and Jennifer, he also had to pass muster with Zach's grandmother. It wasn't an easy task.
"I sit down next to Gram,'' Fleck recalled, "and for the next hour, it is an interview: the head football coach and Gram.'' After answering a few stressful questions, Fleck asked if he could ask one. "Nope,'' came the reply. "Finally, after about an hour, Grandma's fine. She gave me kind of a thumbs up.''
Fleck then turned to Evans' father, "Hey, Courtney. How 'bout a heads-up?'' Fleck said. "He said, 'I've known her for 23 years. I wanted you to go through that.' ''