Chris Autman-Bell had never visited the University of Minnesota when he accepted coach P.J. Fleck’s offer to become a Gopher on Jan. 6, a few hours after Fleck’s breathless introductory news conference.
Autman-Bell, a wide receiver from Kankakee, Ill., is among nine players who committed to Western Michigan and flipped to Minnesota that frenzied first weekend after Fleck made the same switch.
“I was just committed to Coach Fleck,” said Autman-Bell, who will make it official Wednesday on national signing day. “When he got hired, I had a feeling he would take me. That night he said, ‘Are you ready to be a Gopher?’ I was just excited, man.”
The same giddiness might not have registered for Gophers fans. After all, Fleck was pulling these recruits to the Big Ten from the lower-level Mid-American Conference.
But recruiting analysts believe Fleck brought legitimate Big Ten talent with him — especially Autman-Bell and quarterback Tanner Morgan — setting the stage for a transformative 26-day period in Gophers recruiting.
Fleck inherited a class that ranked 72nd in the 247Sports national composite, which blends the four major recruiting services into one. As of Tuesday, the Gophers sat 56th in that same composite, and tied for 27th nationally in Scout.com’s rankings.
“Even though there’s not a Jeff Jones or a Seth Green headliner in this class, there’s a lot of very good players,” said Josh Helmholdt, Midwest recruiting analyst for Rivals.com.
As of Tuesday, the Gophers had 28 players committed. NCAA bylaws say teams can assign up to 25 scholarships in each class, and players who enroll early can be counted toward the previous class. Minnesota had three early enrollees this year — Morgan, quarterback Neil McLaurin and linebacker Trenton Guthrie — after signing 21 players last February.
None of the current players committed to the Gophers ranks as a consensus four-star recruit, as Eden Prairie linebacker Carter Coughlin did last year. That class ranked 46th in the 247Sports Composite, the best of the Jerry Kill/Tracy Claeys era.
Fleck, 36, came to Minnesota with a reputation as a skilled recruiter. His Western Michigan classes ranked as the best in the Mid-American Conference each of the past three years.
“Even in an industry like college football coaching, where you have a lot of unique personalities, P.J. Fleck is at the very top of that heap in terms of uniqueness and charisma,” Helmholdt said. “He’s a very engaging individual. He gets kids to buy in.
“Considering the coaching change, he’s outpaced where a lot of coaches would be in a similar situation.”
When Fleck took over, the Gophers had 15 players committed. Nine have since moved on, including some mutual partings. Fleck kept all five of the in-state players Claeys had recruited and added Hopkins defensive end Boye Mafe on Tuesday. Marshall offensive lineman Blaise Andries, the highest-rated player in this class, held firm, despite having reported offers from Penn State, Oklahoma and Florida.
Ryan Burns, who publishes GopherIllustrated.com, the local Scout.com affiliate, said Fleck and his staff haven’t slept much since getting hired.
“What stands out to me the most,” Burns said, “is they’ve had  different recruits commit since that first weekend, and  of the  have other Power Five offers, which is something I haven’t seen a whole lot of with the old staff.”
Among the notable recruiting battles Fleck won: cornerback Adam Beck (flipped from Texas Tech), wide receiver Demetrius Douglas (flipped from Oregon), athlete Reyondous Estes (flipped from Missouri) and safety Kendarian Handy-Holly (had reported offers from Florida, Mississippi and Louisville).
Quarterback was a pressing need. The Gophers have to replace Mitch Leidner, and two of the candidates — Green and Mark Williams — are facing one-year suspensions from school for their involvement in an alleged Sept. 2 sexual assault.
Morgan is a pro-style quarterback who had reported offers from Louisville and Wake Forest.
“Honestly, Tanner Morgan’s got the best tape I’ve seen a Gopher quarterback come in with since Philip Nelson,” Burns said.
Helmholdt singled out Autman-Bell as one of Fleck’s hidden gems.
“He’s a kid that the Big Ten schools just flat-out missed on,” Helmholdt said. “I mean, he is big, physical, he’s a guy who can stretch the field vertically. He’s going to have, I expect, a very, very nice career in Minneapolis.”
Autman-Bell committed to Western Michigan last February, saying he was captivated by Fleck, who played receiver at Northern Illinois and for the San Francisco 49ers. Another draw was Matt Simon, a Farmington native who served as WMU’s receivers coach, helping develop Corey Davis into a projected first-round NFL pick. Simon has since joined Fleck at Minnesota.
Autman-Bell is a consensus three-star talent. He had no other offers, but he told teams he wasn’t interested after committing to Fleck. The Gophers expressed interest in December, when Claeys was still the coach, but Autman-Bell didn’t budge.
The whole equation changed with Fleck. Last weekend on his official visit, Autman-Bell finally got to see the Minnesota campus.
“It is awesome,” he said. “It’s the Big Ten, man. Western’s facilities and everything were nice, but Minnesota’s are off the chain, man.”
Fleck has been able to sell recruits on the $166 million Athletes Village, which is set to open in 2018. And he’s already working on next year’s recruiting class.
“For the 2018 class, I know he’s already told the staff that anything below a 25 ranking is simply unacceptable,” said Kyle Goblirsch, who runs Gopher247.com. “He’s put that expectation on his staff.”
It’s a lofty goal. But after showing what he can do in 26 days, Fleck has 12 more months to make it happen.