P.J. Fleck’s message to prospects is working. Even during the middle of a pandemic, the fourth-year head coach at Minnesota is doing some unprecedented things in the non-stop world of recruiting.
It doesn’t hurt that he’s got an 11-2 record, an Outback Bowl victory and a school-record five NFL Draft selections to sell.
Combine Fleck’s culture pitch with the recent success the Golden Gophers have enjoyed and the result is a potentially historic recruiting class for the program. As the calendar hits the middle of May, Minnesota has 16 players committed in the 2021 class, five of which own a four-star ranking per 247Sports’ Composite. This group ranks seventh nationally and second in the B1G, behind only Ohio State.
Minnesota has as many four- and five-star pledges as Michigan (5) and more than Penn State (4), Wisconsin (3) and Iowa (3). After spending decades as one of the most overlooked programs in the B1G, Fleck has turned the Twin Cities into an attractive destination for highly-touted prospects.
That should scare teams in the B1G West.
Fleck proved last season that he and his staff are great at developing talent, even without the high-prized recruits. Five members of Minnesota’s 2019 roster were four-star prospects as high school players. Those players were:
- LB Carter Coughlin
- WR Rashod Bateman
- OL Curtis Dunlap
- OL Daniel Faalele
- DB Benjamin St-Juste
That’s it. That’s the list.
Yet with only five players considered “blue-chip recruits” on the team last season, Minnesota posted its highest win total of the modern era, defeated No. 4 Penn State at TCF Bank Stadium and physically dominated one-time College Football Playoff contender Auburn in the Outback Bowl.
None of the previous four recruiting classes that made up that roster ranked higher than 38th nationally. Can you imagine what Fleck might be able to do with a dozen four-star players? Or what the Golden Gophers could accomplish if that number approaches 20?
In the 2021 recruiting class alone, Fleck has landed pledges from as many four-star prospects as were on his 11-win squad last fall. He convinced Avante Dickerson, a defensive back out of Omaha and the No. 92 overall prospect of the cycle, to commit to Minnesota over Nebraska.
Assuming he stays committed, Dickerson would be the highest-ranked high school prospect to play for Minnesota.
Dual-threat quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis (No. 282), cornerback Steven Ortiz (No. 305), running back Mar’Keise Irving (No. 311) and athlete Sam Jackson (No. 326) have all verbally committed, as well. That’s a pretty good starting point to build a consistent contender in the B1G West.
As programs like Wisconsin, Iowa and Northwestern have proven in the past, a roster doesn’t have to be overrun with those blue-chip prospects in order to produce a consistent winner. The Badgers have made four trips to the B1G Championship game since the conference split into East and West divisions in 2014. The Hawkeyes and Wildcats have each made one appearance, but have regularly been in the shuffle.
Getting a handful of those four- and five-star talents, though, is absolutely a recipe to being competitive on an annual basis. That’s what has allowed Wisconsin and Iowa to maintain its success, and what will catapult Minnesota into the same league as their bitter rivals.
There’s still one question that remains unanswered when it comes to Minnesota’s recruiting success: can it be sustained?
Obviously, that’s a question we won’t have an answer to for at least a few years. While things have certainly improved under Fleck, it wasn’t until an 11-2 season and a program-record five players were selected in the NFL Draft that the head coach started reaping some big-time rewards on the recruiting trail. What happens if the Gophers stub their toe next season and fall back to a seven- or eight-win year?
Right now, things are looking bright on the recruiting front in Minneapolis. And if it is something that Fleck and his staff can sustain, it’ll be just a matter of time before the Golden Gophers make their first trip to Indianapolis.
The Circle City could even become a frequent December destination for Minnesota.