P.J. Fleck’s roster vision is taking shape in Minnesota

When Gophers’ head coach P.J. Fleck was hired in January of 2017, he told fans recruiting was the “blood line” of every successful program. Since he arrived in Minnesota, Fleck and his staff have hit the recruiting trail harder than many programs across the country. With National Signing day on Wednesday, the program will be adding its second true cycle under Fleck.

Last year, he pulled in Minnesota’s highest-rated recruiting class in a decade. Prior to Fleck being hired, the Gophers’ highest nationally ranked recruiting class was No. 26 in 2008, according to 24/7 Sports data. The 2018 class finished No. 38 and the latest cycle joining Wednesday will hover around No. 33. There are still two open spots available and they will eventually be filled  by several targets.

When P.J. Fleck began at Minnesota, he had to fill out the 2017 class with many players previously recruited by Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys. Over the past two seasons, the approach has shifted. Minnesota has added at least three “blue-chip” players per class. Many of those top commitments have come at positions of need. Offensive tackle Daniel Faalele, wide receiver Rashod Bateman and Terell Smith all earned starting roles as freshmen in 2018. It’s also clear the staff has emphasized recruiting athletes and prototype players at certain positions. In this recruiting cycle, three players rank within the top-25 of highest recruits added by Minnesota during the internet era, according to 24/7 Sports.

Based upon the strategy of the current 2019 recruiting class, it appears this will be the case again. The staff added one of the best defensive line groups in recent memory. In the process, Minnesota won big recruiting battles to land 2 four-star defensive tackles. With the need for talent and depth among this position group, several of these players could contribute immediately. Talent and rating wise, this is arguably the top defensive tackle class in the past decade of Gopher football.

Defensive tackle Rashad Cheney Jr. was previously committed to both Georgia and Alabama, before choosing the Gophers. The 6-foot-2, 275-pound defensive tackle is a powerful presence inside and displays fantastic hand usage to fight off blocks. Cheney Jr. plays very hard and has versatility as a run stopper and pass rusher. Upon committing, he quickly became the highest rated player in Minnesota’s class. A few days later, the Gophers added another four-star defensive tackle by landing Memphis product Kristian Williams. He chose the Gophers over offers from Missouri, Memphis, Indiana, Tennessee and others. Williams hasn’t officially signed and will likely do so in February. However, he continues to express his commitment to Minnesota.

At 6-foot-3, 297 pounds, Williams is the perfect candidate to play three-technique defensive tackle in Minnesota’s defense. He will probably continue trying to add weight to peak at around 305 pounds. Considering his current size and 6-foot-3 frame, his player profile aligns with the typical three-technique prototype.

Minnesota prioritized the defensive line by adding four defensive tackles and two defensive ends. JUCO defensive tackle Keonte Schad had late interest from Tennessee and Central Florida, but stayed true to his commitment at Minnesota. He’s another versatile defensive tackle who may help immediately as the Gophers search for depth and rotational options. All of the commits within the interior had numerous Power-Five offers and several had options at large programs, too. Late last week, the Gophers also received a pledge from three-star St. Louis defensive end MJ Anderson. He is an athletic pass rusher who can develop behind other young players like redshirt freshman Mayan Ahanotu and redshirt sophomores Esezi Otomewo and Boye Mafe.

The vision

With all of this in mind, everyone is starting to witness P.J. Fleck’s roster vision coming to life. When he initially arrived at Minnesota, he had to determine which positions needed the most immediate upgrade. He and his staff ultimately chose wide receiver, offensive line and defensive back. All of those position groups received immediate contributions from players in the 2018 class.

In this recruiting cycle, Fleck and his staff emphasized the defensive line. With this being the clear weakness on the roster, they understand the importance of controlling the trenches in the Big Ten. By stopping the run and commanding more attention inside, the edge players get more opportunities to rush the passer. Not only that, but the Gophers can play more aggressive man-coverage schemes on the outside because the pass rush will be improved.

Considering the talent improvement and depth injection on the defensive line, the team also added two talented defensive backs. Cornerback Tyler Nubin is the No. 5 ranked player in the state of Illinois. He is a physical, strong, man-press-style cornerback in this defensive scheme. Nubin could make an early contribution as Minnesota searches for more physicality in the secondary. Outside of the defensive tackles, he is arguably the top player in this class. Florida defensive back Solmon Brown also brings some explosiveness and ball skills to a group searching for more athleticism and takeaways. It’s clear Minnesota wanted varying skill sets inside, combined with more team speed and overall physicality in the secondary. Those boxes were checked with the recruiting moves made in this incoming class. Ideally, they may like to receive one more defensive back via the final two recruiting spots.

Outside of these positions, the Gophers held off a late charge by Florida State and Miami to add linebacker James Gordon. He is a very physical and strong player that complements the rangy, blitzing skills of Cleveland, Ohio commit Donald Willis. Gordon has the chance to develop into a future NFL talent, based upon his unique build and room to get even better physically.

Outside of the defensive injections, the coaches have been sprinkling depth across positions they’ve already heavily addressed. This includes running back, where the team landed Minnesota’s “Mr. Football,” Jason Williamson. The Owatonna running back has shattered numerous state records. This season, he rushed for 3,012 yards and 46 touchdowns, which is second-highest yardage mark in state history.

In addition to Williamson, the team added another quarterback to compete for the starting job. Texas quarterback Jacob Clark chose Minnesota over notable strong offers from Iowa and California. The strong-armed 6-foot-5 passer, completed 66 percent of his passes for 3,287 yards and 31 touchdowns this season. He also tossed just seven interceptions and added ten rushing scores. His offensive terminology in high school features similar concepts to the Gophers’, which should help ease the transition. Clark is widely considered one of the most underrated players in the state. When considering his strengths as a player, he could compete for the job immediately. The staff also teamed up Clark with Texas wide receiver Nnamdi Adim-Madumere. He held offers Alabama and Baylor and features a wide catch radius, blended with many physical traits you’d expect from a mismatch receiver. Adim-Madumere can stretch the field up the seam and will win contested catch battles when the ball is passed in his vicinity.

With the volume of redshirts the staff preserved this season, the emphasis placed upon the defensive line fits their strategy. Players like defensive end Mayan Ahanotu, guard Curtis Dunlap Jr., wide receiver Jornell Manns, safety Josh Aune, tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, and linebackers Thomas Rush and Braelen Oliver sat in the background developing. They will be the next players to elevate on the depth chart and future additions from the next two classes will follow a similar pattern. This is the example of competitive depth starting to form within Minnesota’s roster.

Next year, the staff will shift the approach to adding quality players across the depth chart to keep roster development pushing forward. For now, they have addressed another positional weakness, while continuing to spread talent across the roster. It’s the first glimpse of P.J. Fleck’s recruiting vision taking shape.