When college football fans search for the Gophers in national recruiting rankings, they usually have to scroll past the traditional powers and click “next page,” with Minnesota typically hovering somewhere between No. 45 and No. 65.
So it was eye-opening again last weekend, when the Gophers’ latest verbal commitment briefly lifted their 2018 class into the top 10 of the 247Sports national composite rankings.
P.J. Fleck was so excited when Junior Uzebu committed to Minnesota on Saturday, the first-year Gophers coach jumped right into the 6-6, 305-pound Georgia native’s arms, as seen in a photograph Uzebu posted on Twitter.
National signing day isn’t until Feb. 7, and unlike most teams sitting high in the rankings, the Gophers still haven’t landed a consensus four-star recruit. But recruiting analysts say the Gophers’ strong start gives them a real chance of finishing with a top-25 class.
“We’re going to continue to take recruiting to a completely different level every day,” Fleck said.
Last year, under coach Tracy Claeys, the Gophers didn’t land their first commitment until offensive lineman Blaise Andries picked Minnesota on the day of their spring game. Fleck replaced Claeys in early January and finished off the 2017 class that ranked 58th in the 247Sports composite, which combines the major recruiting services into one.
But these aren’t uncharted waters for Minnesota. In 2008, Rivals ranked Tim Brewster’s first full class No. 17, with seven four-star recruits. That group, headlined by MarQueis Gray, never quite lived up to its promise at Minnesota.
Two years ago, under Jerry Kill, the Gophers landed an early commitment from four-star linebacker Carter Coughlin, among others, and hovered near the top 25 before finishing 46th. That was the Gophers’ highest finish in the Kill/Claeys era.
One advantage for Fleck is being able to show recruits construction of the $166 million Athletes Village, with its massive indoor football facility that is set to open in January.
As of Monday, the Gophers’ 2018 class sat No. 11 in the 247Sports composite rankings. All 10 of those committed high school juniors are consensus three-star recruits.
Several traditional powers were behind Minnesota, though that will change when schools add commitments. Michigan, for example, probably isn’t too worried at No. 18, considering four of its five commitments are four-star recruits. And Alabama at No. 25? That’s based on four commitments. Wait until Nick Saban begins stockpiling talent.
“Historically, you need at least four or five four-star [recruits], if you’re going to stay in that top 25,” said Kyle Goblirsch, who runs Gopher247. “They do have a couple guys right now that have potential to bump into that four-star territory.”
Goblirsch said two candidates for a four-star bump are defensive tackle Elijah Teague (from Chicago Marist) and cornerback Benjamin Sapp (Eden Prairie). Teague had offers from Oklahoma, Penn State and Wisconsin, among others. Sapp had offers from all over the country before twice undergoing knee surgery. Like all players, he’ll be re-evaluated this fall as a senior.
Another Gophers commit with four-star potential is quarterback Brennan Armstrong of Shelby, Ohio.
“Our Ohio analyst has seen him countless times; he’s 100 percent pushing for him to be a four-star kid,” said Ryan Burns, who runs GopherIllustrated.com, the local Scout affiliate.
Burns said Armstrong, a lefthanded, dual-threat quarterback, has drawn comparisons to Kellen Moore, who went 50-3 at Boise State before heading to the NFL.
After committing to the Gophers two months ago, Armstrong went to work on his good friend, Jornell Manns, a wide receiver from nearby Mansfield, Ohio. Last week, Manns stopped through Madison, Wis., and got an offer from the Badgers before coming to Minneapolis and committing to the Gophers.
“Minnesota had everything that I needed,” Mann said, referring to the academic programs, facilities, coaching staff, etc. “And Coach Fleck — like, that guy, man — I’ve never met anybody like him.
“It’s bigger than football. I’m going there for him to show me how to be a man. My dad told him, ‘We feel 100 percent comfortable turning him over to you right now.’ ”
Fleck, 36, established himself as a top recruiter at Western Michigan, where he had the Mid-American Conference’s top-ranked class for three years before coming to Minnesota.
Burns has been impressed with Fleck’s ability to get out-of-state recruits to come on unofficial visits to Minnesota, paying their own way. Of the Gophers’ 10 commitments, four are from Georgia, three are from Ohio and one is from Illinois — yet all 10 have visited campus.
Recruits are not allowed to take official visits — paid for by the schools — until Sept. 1 of their senior year. Last week, the NCAA took a step toward allowing official visits between April and June of a recruit’s junior year.
“I think that would only help a school like Minnesota,” Goblirsch said. “You can bring a kid up with his parents in April, May and June and show them what Minnesota is like when it’s nice out.”
Fleck also sets a goal of getting most of his class — perhaps 20 of 24 eventual recruits — committed before the season starts. He works fast, and so far the results have people taking notice.