Talented 2021 recruiting class has Gophers optimistic about football program’s future

Minnesota’s 2021 recruiting class currently ranks in the top 10 nationally.

Gophers Head Coach P.J. Fleck talks to reporters after the game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday, Jan. 1. Minnesota took the bowl game with a 31-24 win over the Auburn Tigers. (Kamaan Richards / Minnesota Daily)

Kamaan Richards

Gophers Head Coach P.J. Fleck talks to reporters after the game at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida on Wednesday, Jan. 1. Minnesota took the bowl game with a 31-24 win over the Auburn Tigers. (Kamaan Richards / Minnesota Daily)

by Nick Jungheim

Gophers football reached a level of success in 2019 that the program had not experienced in generations. Minnesota had the best season since 1904, ended the season ranked in the AP Top 10 for the first time since 1962 and capped the year with its first New Year’s Day Bowl victory in 59 years.

Throughout the offseason, head coach P.J. Fleck and his staff have worked hard to make sure the Gophers will not have to wait decades before they reach those heights again. Over the past few weeks, they have taken an important step towards bolstering Minnesota’s future, signing multiple highly regarded recruits.

“It’s hard to win 10-plus games, and it’s not going to happen every year,” Fleck said. “But when you can show the evidence that it is going to happen at some point while you are in school, you are going to have a year like that, I think [recruits] really get excited about that.”

According to 247Sports’ rankings, the Gophers’ 2021 class is among college football’s best, currently sitting at No. 7 in the nation, third in the Big Ten behind Ohio State and Iowa. As of this time, Minnesota is ranked ahead of multiple traditional powerhouse programs, including Notre Dame, Michigan and defending National Champions, LSU.

Since late March, the team has added four to its 2021 class. Each of those four players rank among the program’s top-25 highest rated recruits since 247Sports established its rankings. 

“For us, it has been a very successful April,” Fleck said. “It is remarkable what our staff is accomplishing.”

The highest rated of the Gophers’ 2021 recruits is Avante Dickerson, a cornerback from Omaha, Nebraska, Dickerson is rated as the No. 92 overall player nationally. Along with Dickerson is cornerback Steven Ortiz, also a four-star recruit out of Goodyear, Arizona.

On the offensive side of the ball, the Gophers have added talent as well, receiving a commitment from quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis. The native of Antioch, Illinois, is ranked as the 11th dual-threat passer in his class.

Minnesota has added another four-star recruit from Fleck’s home state of Illinois in Sam Jackson of Naperville, Illinois. Jackson is a high school quarterback, but the Gophers recruited him as an athlete and will likely try to move him to a different position.

For Fleck, having four-star talent on the roster is a luxury he has not had previously in his head coaching career. His reputation is somebody who develops talent other programs overlooked. Before coming to Minnesota, Fleck led Western Michigan to a 13-1 season and a Cotton Bowl appearance. That team featured Corey Davis, a two-star wide receiver recruit who went on to become the fifth overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft.

“When you look at when we were at Western Michigan, what was the difference?” Fleck said. “Yeah we got better as coaches but it was the players. We got better players, the players grew up… At Minnesota you are going to see that trend as well.”

In all, Minnesota landed 11 recruits during the spring signing period. This year, recruiting has come with the added challenge of the NCAA putting a moratorium on in-person and on-campus recruiting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Fleck and his staff have remained proactive in their recruiting efforts.

“Our coaches are doing a great job creatively right now in the virtual market,” Fleck said. “Being able to find ways to be just a little bit different and finding ways to do more and do it better for longer. They are working really hard right now.”

The teams’ successful NFL Draft  helped promote Minnesota. Although most recruits committed prior to the event, it was already evident that Minnesota would see an increase in players selected in 2020. That turned out to be the case, as teams selected five Gophers for the first time since 1990.

Drafted players such as safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and wide receiver Tyler Johnson predated Fleck at Minnesota, however they remain testaments to his coaching ability. Under Fleck, Winfield became Minnesota’s first unanimous All-American since 2005 and Johnson set school records in several major receiving categories.

In all, last year’s Gophers team had four four-star recruits total, linebacker Carter Coughlin, linemen Daniel Faalele and Curtis Dunlap, and wide receiver Rashod Bateman. With that same number of four-star recruits joining the team as one class in 2021, it is clear to see why Fleck is convinced that the 11-2 campaign in 2019 was no fluke.