When P.J. Fleck was assembling his first Gophers recruiting class last January, the deadline pressure was enormous. The former Western Michigan coach accepted the Minnesota job on Jan. 6, and the Feb. 1 national signing day was quickly approaching. He put together a class that ranked 59th nationally in the 247Sports.com composite ratings, up from 72nd when he took the job.
Ten months later, Fleck has had more time to work on his Class of 2018, and with the new early signing period opening Wednesday morning and running through Friday, the Gophers have made big strides.
Fleck has put together a 26-player recruiting class that as of Tuesday ranked 27th nationally in the 247Sports composite, Minnesota's best rating since the Class of 2008, when coach Tim Brewster's class was 26th. In addition, Fleck's class ranks first among Big Ten West Division teams. The entire class is expected to sign national letters of intent during the early period.
"He gets a full, entire class to build from beginning to end, so you're looking at a completely different situation from 2017 to 2018," said Josh Helmholdt, Midwest recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.
With more time to work on his second class, Fleck also could better address needs. And as their 5-7 record in 2017 showed, the Gophers had several areas to address for the present and future in recruiting. Here are three, all on offense:
The Gophers ranked 122nd nationally in passing yards per game this year, so they need an upgrade under center. They hope they got it with Vic Viramontes, who will transfer from Riverside (Calif.) City College and have three years of eligibility remaining. Viramontes, who verbally committed to Michigan out of high school but spent his freshman year at California, passed for 1,868 yards and 22 TDs and rushed for 1,346 yards and 21 TDs at Riverside on the way to becoming the No. 1-ranked dual-threat junior college QB in the Class of 2018.
Viramontes could be the front-runner to win the vacant starting job.
"I wanted a school where I could come in and compete for the job, get to show the coaching staff what I could do, and just have a fair opportunity," he said.
Helmholdt sees Viramontes as a leader and compares his traits to a certain NFL QB who wore No. 4.
"He's a gritty kid. He's more of a riverboat gambler type like the Brett Favres of the world. He's not your prototypical drop-back, Tom Brady-type, clean-mechanics passer," Helmholdt said. "He's certainly a guy who I could see stepping in front of 10 other guys and getting them to fall behind him — the Brett Favre, Doug Flutie-type that isn't always picture-perfect but just has that 'it' about him where he's a winner."
The Gophers also will bring in preferred walk-on Zach Annexstad of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Annexstad, who originally is from St. Peter, Minn., and transferred from Mankato West to IMG, wants a shot at the starting job, too.
"I plan on going there and competing in the spring," he said.
The gem among skill-position players in the Gophers' class is wide receiver Rashod Bateman, a 6-1½, 180-pounder from Tift County High School in Tifton, Ga., who earned a four-star ranking by 247Sports after catching 83 passes for 1,539 yards and 21 TDs this year. Bateman's ascension attracted a flurry of late offers from SEC programs, including Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas A&M in December.
"Yes, he's a great talent, yes, he's going to address some needs and be an important asset to this football team down the road," Helmholdt said, "but for P.J. Fleck to go into Georgia, and No. 1, get this kid's commitment, and keep that commitment through an onslaught of late interest from big-time programs really shows the cache he has on the recruiting trail right now."
Fleck addressed the line with a seven-player class that includes two massive linemen from IMG Academy — four-star guard Curtis Dunlap (6-4, 368 pounds) and three-star tackle Daniel Faalele, a 6-8, 400-pounder from Australia. Add in 6-7, 309-pound tackle Jason Dickson of Diablo Valley (Calif.) College, who could play quickly, and the Gophers have more beef up front.
Helmholdt was impressed with Fleck's work with the IMG linemen.
"I was talking with some guys at IMG before Faalele and Dunlap made their official visits, and they said P.J. Fleck came in there and created a buzz. Kids were excited about him," Helmholdt said. "To be able to do that at a program like IMG, which sees every single major Power Five coach through its doors, to have P.J. Fleck do down there and create that kind of buzz speaks volumes.''