MINNEAPOLIS — If nothing else, 2020 has provided Minnesota football a larger window into the future.

A young defense, attrition and one of college football’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks have forced the Golden Gophers to grow up in a lot of spots. In Saturday’s win against Nebraska, they played a whopping 22 freshmen.

But reinforcements are coming.

“This is that cultural sustainability we’re talking about of getting those high school kids in here and developing them,” said coach P.J. Fleck, who often refers to Minnesota as “a developmental program.” “Everybody wants to play more and everybody wants to do more and everybody wants more playing time, and it’ll happen. And there’ll be that progression.”

With the Early Signing Period set to begin Wednesday, this is a pivotal class for Fleck. He led the Gophers to an 11-win season in 2019, but that was largely with Jerry Kill/Tracy Claeys recruits.

Virtually the entire roster will be “Fleck guys” by next fall. It’ll include a few 4-star skill players who could be in line for early playing time.

But this isn’t the kind of place that attracts a lot of out-of-the-box players. Fleck doesn’t run the team that way, to boot.

Can he and his staff recruit as well as they develop and appear to inspire?

With that question as a framework, let’s dig into the Gophers’ 2021 recruiting class with some help from 247Sports’ rankings.

By the numbers

Big Ten rank: 8
National rank: 28
5-stars: 0
4-stars: 5
3-stars: 12

Top player: Avante Dickerson, 4-star CB

Dickerson was a huge coup for this class for multiple reasons. For one, the Gophers went into the backyard of a B1G West foe and plucked the 6-foot, 170-pound cornerback prospect out of Nebraska. Second, defensive back could be an area of pseudo-grave need depending on what seniors Benjamin St-Juste and Coney Durr decide to do with their extra years of eligibility.

The star player at Omaha Westside, the 2020 state champion in Nebraska’s largest classification, Dickerson is one of the best athletes in the class, the country’s No. 8 cornerback prospect according to 247Sports.

There have been rumblings of a late push by the Huskers to convert such a prized in-state talent. But unless something drastic happens between now and Wednesday, Fleck could have his next big-time defensive back.

Class strength: Defensive line

You can’t put a price on an effective pass rush, and Minnesota frankly hasn’t had much of one this year. FBS’s worst defense in terms of yards per play needs to get better in a hurry, and it starts up front.

The 2021 class features two rush ends and two tackles intent on helping with that. 4-star end Deven Eastern is a local product from Shakopee, Minnesota, and along with 3-star Austin Booker could be part of a headache-inducing defensive line someday.

4-star defensive tackle Jacob Schuster is rated 36th nationally at his position and 12th overall in the state of Washington, an area Minnesota hasn’t historically recruited heavily. Fellow big man Luther McCoy, a 3-star from St. Augustine, Florida, is a 2021 dark horse with a ton of upside.

The No. 3 prospect in Minnesota, Davon Townley, is set to choose between the Gophers, Michigan State and Penn State this week.

Class weakness: Offensive line

This year has shown you can never have enough offensive linemen. They’re especially important in Fleck and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.’s offense, which relies on a lot of zone blocking schemes and RPOs. That means the guys up front have to be able to do a little bit of everything.

There are only two of them in the 2021 crop: 3-star Cameron James out of Chicago, and 3-star Logan Purcell from Annandale, Minnesota. Both will need to put on some weight and develop in the Gophers’ system before they become contributors.

Furthermore, offensive line will be an area of need in subsequent classes.

Grading the QB class

Believe it or not, there will be life after Tanner Morgan. Eventually. The Gophers’ quarterback appears set to return next year and could have as many as two years left, thanks to the NCAA’s eligibility forgiveness during the pandemic.

But who will come next is anyone’s guess. Minnesota currently has 5 signal callers on the roster behind Morgan, and 2021 4-star Athan Kaliakmanis could make it 6. Kaliakmanis, whose twin brother plays receiver and is also headed to Dinkytown, has all the tools to be a productive dual-threat quarterback at the FBS level.

But can he beat out the likes of Zack Annextad, who has started games for the Gophers, 2019 4-star Jacob Clark, homegrown QB Cole Kramer and Vegas native Lonenoa Faoa? If so, how soon? Time will tell.

Did they close the borders?

In a word, no.

Minnesota isn’t a state rife with prep talent, but its top-end players often go on to greatness. That puts a premium on retaining in-state talent, and Fleck has made it a point of emphasis.

There’ still a ways to go, though. Of the top 10 players in the state, only 2 were committed to the Gophers as of Sunday.

The top two players in the state are headed to the program’s two biggest rivals: 4-star offensive tackle Riley Mahlman to Wisconsin, 4-star defensive end Justice Sullivan to Iowa.

Nabbing Townley would go a long way in salving those wounds.

Final thought

Minnesota’s No. 28 national ranking its highest since 2008. Land Townley, and the Gophers will likely have their highest-rated class in the modern recruiting era.

It’s another example of Fleck taking this institution to new levels. Depending on who returns for their extra season, you could be looking at a team with a ton of game experience plus a top-30 class waiting in the wings.

It’ll be a year or two before we see it all pan out, but things are certainly trending upward for a program capable of mixing in more 10- and 11-win seasons like the one it celebrated in 2019.