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PJ Fleck manages Gophers football roster after early recruiting classes decline




Bateman is one of PJ Flecks’ biggest recruiting success stories as the head coach approaches his fifth season in Minnesota. Bateman, a four-star prospectus from rural South Georgia, urged scholarships from SEC schools to be part of Fleck’s first full-time recruiting class in 2018.

Bateman immediately set freshmen with records falling, then broke more records as a 2019 sophomore on his way to the Big Ten Receiver of the Year and an All-American title. He had a prolific, but not eye-catching, junior season in 2020 before signing out after five games to focus on his future as a pro.

Bateman has become a recognizable name in the football world; two of his 2018 class co-recipients are known only to Gophers diehards.

Jornell Brooks II and Erik Gibson don’t even have a spots the Gophers depth chart for upcoming spring practices. They came to Minnesota from Ohio and Michigan at the same time as Bateman, but neither player considered in the top 15 rated recruits in that class was given a pass before medically retiring from the program a year ago.

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Those two recipients are part of a nearly 50 percent share of Minnesota class in 2018 that has since left the program. That group is evenly divided into two sub-categories: players who have finished their careers and players who have switched to other programs. Only one transfer moved laterally to another Power Five program defending lineman Mayan Ahanotu to Rutgers. Five others attended elementary schools, including Benny Sapp III in Northern Iowa.

Recruiting is, of course, an imprecise science, with margins of error built in. In this 2018 class, that swing-and-a-miss rate was about 25 percent, if injuries and program fit are put into separate pools.

One factor contributing to a higher miss rate in this class is loyalty. Some high school players were injured after accepting a scholarship from the Gophers, and Minnesota backed players by following their offer. That situation preceded Gibson and Brooks and made it difficult for their chances to take the field at TCF Bank Stadium.

On the other hand, the Gophers can see about 25 percent of their 2018 class in the NFL. Besides Bateman, their NFL hopeful offensive linemen are Daniel Faalele and Curtis Dunlap; linebackers Braelen Oliver and Mariano Sori-Marin; tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, and defensive end Thomas Rush.

To get to the next level, that group falls into two categories: players who need to stay healthy after injuries have derailed their 2020 season (Faalele, Dunlap and Oliver) and players who need to produce a higher level of play on the field next fall (Sori-Marin , Spann-Ford and Rush).

This brings us to 2021, when the Gophers are expected to be the most experienced team Fleck has put on the pitch. The 2018 class losses are offset by more than a dozen players left from Fleck’s first division in 2017, assembled less than a month after his hiring, and a solid set of super seniors brought in by the previous coaching staff .

Since Fleck arrived in Minnesota, transfers are no longer primarily about bringing in junior college breaks, something he has always avoided. With rule changes, Minnesota has been able to mine the NCAA transfer portal for players who didn’t attend top programs.

A recent success story is Benjamin St-Juste, the Michigan graduate transfer, who consistently produced after his arrival in 2019. The sleek 6-foot-3 cornerback declared for the NFL draw in December and has seen his stock soar after a good performance. at the Senior Kom at the end of January. Come the three day NFL draft, St-Juste will hear his name after Bateman.

Going back to that playbook to plug holes at receiver, Minnesota brought in Dylan Wright, a highly regarded four-star prospect that didn’t pan out at Texas A&M.

If Wright qualifies for the NCAA immediately, which is expected, he will be quarterback Tanner Morgans’ biggest target at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds. He has enrolled in Minnesota for the spring semester and is working with the team.

On the other side of the ball, defensive tackle Jamaal Teague was one of the highest rated players in the 2018 Minnesota league. The 6-foot-3, 310-pounder played in 19 games before opting out of the 2020 season due to personal and COVID -19 reasons. Minnesota would welcome Teague back in 2021, but he has yet to make up his mind about his future.

In the meantime, Minnesota brought in two defensive tackles from the transfer portal: Clemson captain Nyles Pinckney and North Carolina States Val Martin. They both enrolled in Minnesota for the spring semester and will be eligible to play for the Gophers this fall.

Pinckney could be a big prize. Weighing in at 1.85 meters, 290 pounds, he played over 1100 snaps and was a major contributor to the national title-contending Tigers. He came to Minnesota for an extended starter role.

Since coming to Minnesota, Fleck has said he wants to stack big senior classes. That won’t happen with his first two classes of recruits, but he has worked to fulfill one more of his desires: recruiting the players he currently has or had.

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