Steven Ortiz Jr. sent a big paragraph to the Gophers’ 2021 recruiting class group chat after George Floyd’s killing in police custody.
“Love you guys all so much. I can’t wait to ride with you guys,” it read. “Don’t let this George Floyd incident reflect on you guys staying committed. Because it happens pretty much everywhere.”
Ortiz then shared an incident that happened in his native Arizona within days of Floyd’s May 25 death, a situation where a black DoorDash driver had a gun pulled on him while making a delivery. The other 15 members of the Gophers’ 2021 class — from Nebraska, Illinois, Ohio, Georgia, Indiana, Texas, Florida and Minnesota — could probably all share similar tragic, scary stories.
This class, though, seems to have already bonded together — with the Gophers and each other. And Floyd’s killing, along with the vast protesting and rioting that followed, hasn’t seemed to shake their commitment.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has excelled at recruiting during the coronavirus pandemic despite a moratorium on in-person visits through Aug. 31. Eleven recruits have committed to the program since those restrictions started, the majority without ever visiting campus or the state, including Ortiz.
One, Indiana defensive end Austin Booker, even committed five days after Floyd’s death, during the unrest’s peak.
Booker chose the Gophers after several virtual visits and conversations with current players, other recruits, Fleck and new defensive line coach Chad Wilt, who originally recruited him at Cincinnati. Booker said even though Floyd’s death happened just a few days before he officially committed, it didn’t make him second-guess his decision.
“They just felt like the school I was most comfortable with,” Booker said. “Day in, day out just talking with them on the phone.”
Fleck, who could not be reached to comment about his approach, shared how his team’s culture kept everyone together through the upheaval in the Twin Cities, Booker said.
Meanwhile, other programs showed signs of fracture. For example, a Florida State player called out coach Mike Norvell for lying about reaching out to each player to discuss Floyd’s death, something for which Norvell later apologized.
Fleck held off on a public statement for a week after Floyd died, instead taking that time to speak with all of his players, including the recruits. He also organized a group video chat with all the prospects and their parents.
“He was pretty much just telling us that … we’re safe and that our voices should be heard,” Ortiz said. “… He was just telling all of us, ‘Hey, guys, I don’t want this to affect you guys coming here.’ ”
After Fleck talked to the 2021 class, Ortiz asked a friend who’d committed to another Division I program if that coaching staff had done similarly. His friend told him he hadn’t heard anything yet. Ortiz said Fleck making talking to the recruits a priority spoke volumes to him.
That quality is what makes Fleck such a strong recruiter, according to college football recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. The Gophers’ 2021 class ranks 15th nationally and fifth in the Big Ten, per 247Sports.com, with four four-star prospects. Lemming said that while it’s still early, this could be the Gophers’ best class in 40 years.
At a recent event Lemming held in Chicago with 50 top underclass players in the area, almost all of them listed Minnesota on their questionnaires as a potential team, he said, a change from previous years. That’s likely a product of the momentum the Gophers built in Fleck’s third season in 2019, where the Gophers went 11-2 and finished No. 10 in the country.
A global pandemic hasn’t seemed to derail that. And Lemming doesn’t foresee the recent events in the Twin Cities disrupting it either.
“Nothing affects anything,” Lemming said. “… See even now, they’re still recruiting great, Minnesota. So they’ve got nothing to do with the police force. The ballplayers know once they visit the campus, the university’s got its own police force, and it’s a little bit different.
“If you’ve got good salesmen, which is what Minnesota has, it’s not going to affect them much at all.”
Two players have decommitted from the Gophers since Floyd’s death. Sam Jackson, a high school quarterback from Illinois whom the Gophers planned to use at a different position, switched to Purdue. Texas defensive end D’Marion Alexander reopened his recruiting, citing in his social media statement “recent situations” forcing him to re-evaluate what’s best for him. Alexander could not be reached for comment.
There’s still five-plus months left to fill out the rest of the 2021 class, which is also time for players to potentially change their minds and diminish what could be a defining class for the Gophers. But Booker said what happened to Floyd shouldn’t change recruits’ view of the program or Minneapolis.
“I feel like if they really liked Minnesota that much, then there won’t be a problem,” Booker said. “But if they asked me about it, then I would just reassure how Fleck knows how to keep his culture together at Minnesota. So there’s no problems, and all the players are safe and on the front lines helping out.”