When new Gophers commit Steven Ortiz Jr., was just 5 years old, his parents signed him up for flag football.
But the youngster breezed right past that whole no-contact rule.
“He was tackling kids and then pulling their flags,” said his dad, Steven Sr. “The guy who ran the league told me, ‘Hey, Ray Lewis can’t come back. I’m getting a lot of parent complaints.’ ”
Instead of giving his son a talking to, Ortiz Sr. decided to develop that inclination. He set up tackling drills in the backyard — his wife as quarterback, younger daughters as receivers, himself holding a pillow, bracing for the hit.
Those days ultimately paid off, helping Ortiz Jr. get a scholarship offer from the Gophers, and he committed to them Thursday evening. The four-star cornerback recruit out of Arizona is believed to be the highest-rated prospect the Gophers have ever landed at that position and one of the best overall.
“I’m a Gopher, ride or die Gopher, as of [Thursday],” Ortiz said “There’s no decommitment from me. I’m all loyalty.”
That’s stunning allegiance, considering the junior at Desert Edge High School in Goodyear, Ariz., has never even set foot on Minnesota’s campus. In fact, the Gophers weren’t even on his radar until about a month ago, making him an offer March 16.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced a moratorium on all recruiting visits and travel, but Gophers coach P.J. Fleck and his staff have been aggressive during this time despite the limitations.
Ortiz said the Gophers were in contact with him every day this past month via video chat, calls and texts. They also organized a virtual tour on FaceTime, where one coach would show him one part of the facility before patching in another coach to talk through another area.
Ortiz had more than two dozen offers from schools across the country such as Penn State and Oregon, some coming as early as after his freshman season on varsity. He’d visited about a dozen of those schools and used those experiences to home in on what he wanted. Fleck’s culture and energy was it.
“[They] just made him feel like he was going to be a cornerstone of this class,” said Blair Angulo, Mountain Region recruiting analyst for 247Sports.com. “And I think he felt the love and knew that he wasn’t feeling that … from any other program that he had been to.”
The defensive back has many qualities to build around, according to Jose Lucero, his coach for his first three seasons at Desert Edge. Lucero said he saw that fearless tackling — thanks, Dad — right from the first preseason scrimmage of Ortiz’s freshman year. He’s been a starter of all-state-caliber at cornerback and safety ever since.
Ortiz, 5-11 and 170 pounds, projects as a nickel back for the Gophers. Angulo said his versatility to play multiple positions, including one-on-one edge coverage, as well as his physicality to influence the game at the line of scrimmage, makes him a strong player.
“He’s got a lot of really good instincts that you love to see in defensive backs,” Angulo said. “… You look at his measurables, he’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the tallest player, he’s not the strongest. But I think he’s always putting himself in the right spot to make a play and to make an impact.”
Ortiz livestreamed his commitment on Instagram, with current Gophers players such as quarterback Tanner Morgan and cornerback Phillip Howard joining in to congratulate him. Now Ortiz is taking on the responsibility as one of the faces of the 2021 class, communicating with other recruits to convince them to join him.
“I’m going to start working on making this class,” Ortiz said, “the best class in Minnesota history.”