Several Gophers football recruits were on the way back from the Mall of America, or maybe it was U.S. Bank Stadium, when one finally spoke up and asked the question on everyone’s mind.
“Are you guys going here? Because this is the best place I’ve ever been. We have to go here.”
Gage Keys, a defensive end from Ohio, heard that and immediately answered, “Yeah, I’m coming here, too.”
That was six months ago, when 12 players committed to play for the Gophers after their “Summer Splash” official visit weekend. Since then, the 2020 class has bonded through Twitter and a group chat, reuniting for the Wisconsin game to experience “College GameDay” and the Gophers’ shot at winning the Big Ten West.
Now, 26 Gophers commits will sign their national letters of intent Wednesday, the start of a three-day early signing period when most football recruits make their decision. Several of them will then become early enrollees, joining the Gophers for January winter workouts and spring ball.
This Gophers class ranks 32nd nationally and eighth in the Big Ten, according to 247Sports.com. That’s a 13-spot rise nationally, two spots up in the conference, from last season. It’s Minnesota’s highest national ranking since the 2008 class, which was 26th in the country and fifth in the Big Ten.
A 10-2 season surprised many, but Keys said the recruits knew this was possible because they saw what the program was like in the summer. And they watched the team’s national perception change, from cringing about close nonconference calls to marveling at the top-five win against Penn State.
“I know a few younger recruits at some schools near me are hitting me up like, ‘Have the coaches said anything to you about me? I’m trying to come,’ ” Keys said. He told them, “It’s a special place, and you need to take that visit for sure. It’s worth the drive.”
Josh Helmholdt, a Midwest recruiting analyst for Rivals, said since the Gophers filled most of their 2020 spots in June, their good season this year won’t have much of an impact on the current class. But 2021 should see a bump.
“It’s easy when you have something to sell in recruiting,” Helmholdt said. “And P.J. [Fleck] and his staff have a lot to sell coming off of this 2019 season.”
The Gophers have received some recent commitments, though, including Florida receiver Douglas Emilien. Gophers recruiting analyst Ryan Burns from 247Sports.com said the Gophers’ standout season “definitively” impacted Emilien’s choice.
“He’s a kid that maybe wasn’t as interested in Minnesota back when the Gophers wanted him in the spring and summer,” Burns said. “But then when you win 10 games and then you also have the No. 1 and No. 2 receiver in the Big Ten, it turns out receivers, especially, are going to be much more interested than they may have been previously. Like you don’t get that kid who … had offers from LSU among other places if you don’t have a great season.”
Burns said the Gophers’ class is on the same tier as Wisconsin and Iowa, which the program will need to sustain if it wants to compete for Big Ten West titles every year. But the team will also need sustained success after this one-year jump to attract even better prospects.
The 2020 class has one real head-turner in four-star Missouri linebacker Itayvion Brown and others with high potential, including Kansas running back Ky Thomas, fast Ohio athlete Miles Fleming, local Anoka linebacker Cody Lindenberg and Keys.
These players talk almost every day via text. They commiserated about the Wisconsin loss together, already vowing they won’t be the senior class crying on senior day for the lost Axe. Fleck told them their responsibility when they join the team is to uphold the standard set this year, when the team won seven Big Ten games for the first time.
Signing Wednesday will be the first step in a long journey. But this class is already ahead of the game in one aspect: their bond with one another.
“The craziest thing was, it felt like we had been together the past four years when we had just met,” Keys said of meeting many of his future teammates in June. “They’re all really cool guys, and we got along really well.”