Minnesota football recruiting: The philosophy behind the Gophers' best class in over a decade
MINNEAPOLIS — You’ve heard of the “straw man” argument.
That’s when one debate participant creates the illusion of a position that’s different from what his opponent is actually saying. It distracts from the reality of the conversation and doesn’t ultimately prove anything.
But there’s also a method called “steel-manning” your opponents’ argument. That is, taking the best, most effective version of it and trying to disprove that.
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck knows exactly how to apply this in recruiting. He knows the knocks against the Gophers that rival coaches from more established programs surely use when pitching the same players.
He doesn’t shy away from them. It’s Fleck; he doesn’t shy away from anything.
“There’s schools with cultural sustainability, who have maybe had a jumpstart of decades on that,” Fleck said. “Because you can still use a lot against us. We haven’t had an offensive lineman drafted in 14 years; you can still use that. That’s okay. [Recruiters] can use that and kids can believe them. And that’s fine. Those are recruiting tools and tactics, and it’s fair game.
“But that’s about to change.”
You saw official evidence Wednesday, the opening of the Early Signing Period, as Minnesota signed 19 players to its 2021 class. Omaha native Avante Dickerson was the only commitment who didn’t put pen to paper; he’ll delay his decision till February.
That means there’s a good chance Minnesota’s top 2021 commit ends up signing somewhere else — perhaps Nebraska, which reportedly has remained in close contact even since Dickerson committed in April.
But the point isn’t to emphasize the ones who got away.
Fleck and his staff’s “Row the Boat,” platitude-plentiful, touchy-feely culture isn’t for everybody. Neither is going to college at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities, a campus of more than 51,000 in downtown of a major metropolitan area that averages 45 inches of snow a year and stays below freezing for 3-5 months a year.
U.S.A. “Miracle on Ice” hockey coach and Twin Cities native Herb Brooks once said: “I’m not looking for the best players. I’m looking for the right ones.”
That’s the philosophy behind a class that ranks 27th nationally according to 247Sports.
That’s the program’s best ranking since 2008.
“You can sit there and say we haven’t had a quarterback drafted since the 70s. Okay, that’s going to change,” Fleck said. “But we’re going to do it our way, and I’m not going to compromise the culture or the sustainability of the culture in the future or just right now to get a kid. But there are a lot of people who want to be that person, and want to help start that legacy and build their own legacy here, and bring Minnesota back to where it was.”
Fleck spoke Monday, two days before the Early Signing Period officially opened, which means he couldn’t address specific athletes by name.
But it’s not hard to tell who he was talking about.
Guys like Athan Kaliakmanis, the 4-star dual-threat quarterback from Antioch, Illinois, who chose Minnesota in part because it didn’t have a long history of professional signal-callers. He wants to start one.
Athan hopes to do so throwing passes to his brother, Dino, who’s 17 months older but in the same class as Athan because of developmental disabilities. Dino has Central Auditory Processing Disorder, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming one of the best receivers in the Chicago area.
There are also players who, because of COVID-19, committed sight unseen. Three-star wideout Lemeke Brockington, from Moultrie, Georgia, has never been to Minnesota. Cornerback Steven Ortiz, the No. 2 player in the Gophers’ class, committed out of Goodyear, Arizona Desert Edge without ever visiting campus.
When the NCAA instituted a dead period that still persists in the wake of the coronavirus, Minnesota’s staff was one of the first to deploy virtual visits. Its ability to show video tours of campus and the facilities and give players computerized face time paid off.
Meanwhile, prep football in the Midwest is starting to catch up with the South and the coasts — more seven-on-sevens, more year-round training, and therefore more Division I talent.
Seven of the state of Minnesota’s top 10 2021 recruits inked letters of intent Wednesday. Only 2 of them — defensive end Deven Eastern and offensive tackle Logan Purcell — signed with the Gophers.
In Fleck’s four recruiting classes, Minnesota has landed just 14 of 50 in-state 3- or 4-star prospects (though one of them, Jalen Suggs, ended up playing basketball at Gonzaga this year).
Is that good or bad? Fleck would tell you neither.
“I think one of our major focuses is always to be able to keep in-state talent at home,” Fleck said. “But again, you always want to make sure it’s the right fit. No matter what. You never want a player to come anywhere, no matter where you are, in state or out of state, if it’s not the right fit.
“I think the guys who have always wanted to be Gophers and dreamed of being a Gopher, I think we’ve done a really good job with those guys.”
The right fit can come from anywhere. This year’s class features 5 players from Illinois — the Kaliakmanis brothers, running back Mar’Keise Irving, offensive lineman Cameron James and tight end Jameson Geers — and 4 from the Deep South — Brockington, cornerback Justin Walley (Biloxi, Mississippi), safety Darius Green (Covington, Georgia) and defensive tackle Luther McCoy (Saint Augustine, Florida).
Minnesota is still awaiting word from homegrown defensive end Davon Townley. The 6-6, 220-pound Minneapolis North prospect is rated the No. 19 strongside defensive end nationally and the No. 3 senior in Minnesota. He plans to sign on Feb. 6, National Signing Day.
It’s hard to blame the Townleys and Dickersons of the world for taking their time in making a decision. With the NCAA granting all players an extra year of eligibility due to COVID, and a one-time transfer rule set to take effect as early as January, attracting and retaining talent is about to change.
Coaches have had to adjust to that reality, too. It’s why Fleck, his assistants and recruiting staff will leave at least a few spots open for transfers and/or seniors who decide to return for another season.
The coach believes the Gophers will be allowed to exceed the normal 85-scholarship limit in figuring out the COVID roster calculus.
But big-picture, Fleck believes this latest class is another example of a program — which won 11 games for the first time in over a century last year — trending in the right direction.
He hopes to capture the fancy of “that 10 year old right now who’s watching the Gophers, which again he won’t come for several more years, but that’s what you have to be able to do.
“They’re going to see that vision, and it’s okay if some don’t, I get that. It’s not about every single kid has to see it.”