P.J. Fleck had a dark green Manila folder sitting on his desk at the Larson Football Performance Center on Tuesday. Inside it were a few important documents on the Gophers football program’s immediate recruiting plans for the 2022 class.
There was the color-coded scholarship chart for players in each class, with a new column for super-seniors and longer set of rows for a huge freshman class. There also was a printed calendar for June, when recruiting activities return to some normalcy. Within each day’s box, there was a list of all the items the U will try to fit. Given the number, it needed to be in small font.
On April 15, the NCAA DI Council said football, and all collegiate sports, will return to regular recruiting activities as of Tuesday. They had been in a “dead period” since March 2020 as a way to protect the health and safety of coaches and recruits during the pandemic.
That means the last time Fleck and the Gophers coaching staff was on the recruiting trail was in January 2020, right after Minnesota knocked off Auburn in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida.
“You really miss it,” Fleck said of recruiting. “The biggest thing I’ve missed is the social interaction, the people.” He joked that he’s been sharpening his recruiting pitch during his own home visits.
“Simulate on Heather once in a while, recruit her back to be my wife at times, you know, see, if I still got it,” Fleck said with a smile.
In previous classes, the Gophers have netted a plethora of commitments from high school prospects in June and July. They have pledged after seeing the U’s campus and its newer practice facilities and after going boating out of the Fleck’s place on Lake Minnetonka.
This year, the U will have two “Summer Splash” official visits on June 11-13 and 18-20, with some midweek visits sprinkled in.
In previous years, the Gophers have been building up to 25 commitments in each class, but with the NCAA waiving eligibility counting in 2020, the U is roughly 10 scholarships over the established limit of 85. This is where the super-seniors and the huge freshman class changes the dynamic.
Minnesota will need to get down to 85 scholarships after next season, and they will start by bringing in a smaller class this December. “I have a ballpark number: I can probably take maybe eight, nine, 10 more,” Fleck said Tuesday.
The U currently has five commits, headlined by four-star defensive lineman Trey Bixby of Lakewood, Ohio, and three-star quarter back Jacob Knuth of Harrisburg, S.D. They also have safety Coleman Bryson of Rabun Gap, Ga., and two in-state recruits, receiver Kristen Hoskins of Alexandria and offensive lineman Tony Nelson of Tracy.
With last year’s class, the Gophers showed how much the recruiting landscape has changed in another direction. They signed 18 high school players to scholarships for 2021 and rounded it out with a handful of transfers.
Fleck has said that subcategory for transfers is expected to be part of how Minnesota puts together classes going forward. “I think recruiting is really changing,” he said. “… but I don’t think everybody knows that.”
In the process, Fleck believes his role has shifted to be more like a pro team’s general manager.
“It’s an open market for kids to go anywhere, which again, I think is very fair, and allows kids to be able to play and if anything’s good for the student athlete, I’m all about it,” Fleck said. “It just changes the dynamics of recruiting. … Where you always worried about two, three years out in numbers, but now you’re worried about it. And you used to be able to have a little bit more control of it, know what you’re going to have and how it’s going to look. Now you don’t really know that.”
For instance, the U brought in two transfers at defensive tackles, Nyles Pinckney from Clemson and Val Martin from North Carolina State. They liked their abundant depth in the interior DL, but that was somewhat diminished when one returning starter, Keonte Schad, transferred to Oregon State earlier this month.
The Gophers also had backup safety Abner Dubar enter the transfer portal last week, and even earlier this year, wildcat quarterback Seth Green left for Houston and one of its top 2020 signees, linebacker Itayvion Brown, went to Michigan State.
This puts Minnesota at 94 total scholarships, with about 13 seniors on next year’s roster. The U could have approximately 10 other players decide to move on after next year, putting them at roughly 71 scholarship players.
“There’s natural attrition, especially with the transfer market; that will happen,” Fleck said. “But then you look at the amount of seniors we have, we have more than we did last year. So I feel good about that, you know, anywhere between 13 to 15, which could be less could be more. … It’s not like alright, I’m taking this X number because I know this X number is not going to leave. You don’t know that. Nobody knows that. I think that’s what I meant when I said that it was a little bit more like a GM because you got to have more of a guesstimate. And leave room on both sides.”
Fleck said they are going to attend nine camps in addition to the camps they will host at the U this summer. The plan will be to try to pinpoint the players they want to see live.
“It’s just way more strategic in your takes,” Fleck said. “And you’re going to value camps and live evaluations more than we ever have.”