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Minnesota Football Recruiting: National Signing Day 2015 Class Review and Analysis

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What exactly are the Gophers getting with their 2015 class? How does it compare to previous crops Jerry Kill has brought to Minnesota? What are the themes and relative concerns?

Gopher Gridiron

The latest crop of Golden Gophers are now signed and set to enroll this coming Summer. Today we take a look at what exactly Kill has brought in, exploring the overall themes, skills and concerns of the 2015 Minnesota signing class.

Visualizing the Class

For the fourth year in a row, Jerry Kill managed to sign a class with a higher average rating (according to the 247Sports Composite) than the previous cycle. Nominally, that means recruiting is getting better under Kill each year. How much better though? Well, let's take a look at the distributions of each class and find out!

ratings-by-class

The vertical lines are the class averages, and everything else is self-explanatory. There's a noticeable difference in the form of the distribution from the class Minnesota just signed and the previous four classes: this year shows a much stronger concentration of players in the .83-.85 range. This will happen when every prospect you sign is a three star player, which would suggest Kill's classes have a higher floor in Year 5 than they did in Year 1 or 2. Overall, the classes are all fairly similar; I used an inferential technique known as analysis of variance to evaluate the class averages and there's not enough evidence to suggest at least one of the class averages is different from the rest, groupwise. Individual classes, however? That's a different story.

2012v2015

Between Kill's first full class at Minnesota and the most recent crop, it's highly suggestive there's a difference in means (p-value of .08). Since we can more or less infer this, it makes any comments related to the nature of recruiting improvement under Jerry in Year 5 that much more valid. Now, we don't exactly what is causing things to improve -- rating services giving Minnesota the benefit of the doubt, Kill and co. landing better players, etc. --  just that they have, in fact, gotten better between Jerry's first full class and now.

Taking off my statistician cap, I think there's a combo of factors here. I tend to believe the Big 4 ratings services have bought in to the notion Kill is a good talent evaluator and have adjusted their perspective on his signees accordingly. I also think the exposure from back-to-back 8 win seasons plays a role as well, plus a recruiting staff that's no longer transitioning from the MAC to the Big Ten. These guys know the drill and have a better sense for how to evaluate and recruit at this level now than they did back in 2011, which is contributing to different kinds of athletes they're able to bring in.

All of the Defensive Backs

For starters, the staff only brought in one defensive back (James), though they would have ideally signed 1-2 more. They were stung by the de-commitment of Khari Blasingame late in the process, though they had their chances with other defensive back prospects who all chose to go elsewhere -- including some non-AQ schools. It does feel as though they weren't going to reach for a DB just to take an additional one this class with so many other pressing needs elsewhere. However, that brings the total number of defensive backs signed over the last two classes at a meager 3. Clearly, that position group will be among the biggest priorities for the class of 2015.

The 2013 and 2014 classes were exceptionally light on secondary help, so the staff needed to go big on numbers for the latest cycle. With seven total defensive backs signed, Jay Sawvel and the rest of defensive staff more than met their quotas. Not only that, but the caliber of DBs they brought in were very good -- especially when you consider what Coach Sawvel has spun into golden All-B1G players during his time in Dinkytown.

Starting with Ace Rogers, the Gophers managed to snag defensive backs who can not only contribute right away but also develop into strong players by the time their Maroon & Gold careers are over. Dior Johnson and Ray Buford, Jr. in particular have big time potential, while Alonzo Craighton has the height and length this staff looks for in a boundary corner. Antonio Shenault is reportedly faster than Craig James (one of the 3 fastest dudes on the squad), while the coaches can hardly contain their excitement about KiAnte Hardin. Jacob Huff, the second of two early enrollee defensive backs, was lauded by Claeys for his physical play at safety.

Really goes to show when the staff needs to emphasize recruiting at a specific position, they'll go all out to bring in not just depth but breadth of skills.

Front Seven Though

So last year, it was the back seven. This year, it's the front seven. Can't win 'em all.

Similarly, recruitment of high school linebackers was a little curious. They landed Everett Williams early in the cycle and shifted their focus to pursuing JUCO backers. They didn't re-engage their interest in signing a second high school linebacker until late, by which time they had already allowed Indiana to build a stronger relationship with their top LB prospect, Tegray Scales.

High school linebacker recruiting is still hexing to our coaches. It started off very similar to last year by losing a top OLB target to the Hoosiers (Omari Stringer). In-season runs at 4* prospect Anthony McKee ended up with Minnesota not even receiving an official visit, as McKee opted for the relationship he built with Pat Narduzzi and signed with Pitt. Most gut wrenching, however, was seeing the legitimate top of the board OLB prospect McKinley Whitfield commit to Tulsa not once but three times -- and then ultimately earn an offer from Bobby Petrino at Louisville. There's always the possibility that James Johannesson will do what everyone suspects and play linebacker, though for their part, the staff is committed to the bit he'll stay at running back for now.

Defensive line faired a little better, though only if you consider Colton Beebe as a candidate to play along the line rather than fullback. The staff missed out on Jamal Milan as the Chicago native picked the Illini on Signing Day, a blow softened by remembering Minnesota signed 3 players who saw action at defensive tackle this past season as true freshmen. They also managed to get a physical run defender at DE with the frame to explode up to 300 lbs. (Mose Hall) and a young, still developing edge rusher in Winston DeLattiboudere.

That said, 5 front seven players doesn't feel like a lot when you graduate six and will lose 3 more key contributors after 2015 in Cockran, Keith and Campbell. Both the line and backers will be huge priorities for the 2016 class; luckily for Coach Kill, there are 4 star players at defensive tackle and outside linebacker right in his back yard.

MANBALLfest Destiny

Matt Limegrover continues his march towards an all fullback and tight end offense with yet another crop of stampeding mastodons arriving in Dinkytown. Minnesota hasn't signed an offensive linemen shorter than 6'4" since 2012, and collectively the 2015 class may just be the biggest and most impressive haul to date. Quinn Oseland is the crowning jewel, a legitimately highly sought after prospect whom you could tell Coach is excited about just from the tone of his voice on the official Signing Day videos. Nick Connelly may take a while to fill out, but Limegrover has already mentioned "left tackle" in a manner that suggests something about his potential. Dovich and Stieber? Two more hulking brutes with the ability to play inside or out, and whom add to the stockpile of physical run maulers. Oh, and how could we forget arguably the nastiest blocker of them all in Tyler Moore?

Cementing just the type of offense Kill and Limegrover want to operate in Dinkytown are three more running backs who join an already impressive stable. Jonathan Femi-Cole and Johannesson are physical between the tackles rushers who want to punish defenders, while Shannon Brooks has a bit more explosion and instincts. Bryce Witham was also mentioned by the staff as an h-back/tight end who is capable of handling the physicality of playing on the line in addition to the wingback spot, adding to the lineage of versatile players who contribute to the downhill rushing attack Kill and Limegrover have developed over the last two seasons.

Helping Out Your Quarterback

Yeah, this was an area Minnesota struggled for much of, oh, 2013 and 2014. Despite the awesomeness that was Maxx Williams, few receiving options emerged to make life easier for Mitch Leidner this year -- the product of years of attrition and plain old bad luck at wideout. Enter two more 6'5" flankers with *gasp* natural receiving skills who can go up and get the ball away from smaller defensive backs, plus use their frames to shield themselves from the out-stretched arms of corners. Rashad Still was lauded for his polish (a comment I found surprising), while Hunter Register received much of the same platitudes from Coach Limegrover in his ability to go and get the ball. Throw in Witham, who is no slouch as a pass catcher himself, and Moose just found himself 3 more potential targets in 2015.

All Together Now

To recap from last year:

Kill mentioned it repeatedly throughout the year and reiterated it yesterday, but the third full recruiting class is the one that "turns the tide" for the program. From a depth perspective, he's absolutely right. At the skill positions, the Gophers are still relatively young but talented. They should continue to grow and develop together, and the recent signees will improve the overall roster competition and make everyone better by pressuring folks to step up their game.

The fourth full class under Kill at Minnesota, both the overall ratings picture and statistical analysis of this group highlight how Jerry and his staff are continuing to raise the bar in Dinkytown. There are high potential guys like Demry Croft, Oseland and Dior, yet few -- if any -- prospects representing true "diamonds in the rough" that previously festooned Minnesota recruiting classes. Every single prospect is rated a 3 star by industry composite. The need to play true freshmen outside of the secondary simply isn't there, a welcome change from previous years when Kill would burn a redshirt just because he needed a body on the field.

You can also see from the listed measurables of the incoming players that Jerry is starting to land dudes with real Big Ten size. The defensive backs all have good length and/or speed, the offensive linemen are huge, the wide receivers are tall and they've managed to fill voids left by NFL caliber talent with recruits of comparable weight and height. They're moving away from playing scrappy MANBALL to plain old big and mean MANBALL.