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Minnesota Football Recruiting: Looking back at the 2016 Empire Class

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The 2016 Empire Class was going to special...it is.

Minnesota v Michigan Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

You may recall the 2016 recruiting class and the excitement that surround what was a very talented and deep class. Headlined by some elite local talent who dubbed themselves as the Empire Class. The label was initially applied by then Eden Prairie HS linebacker, Carter Coughlin.

This class was easily the most talented class recruited by Jerry Kill and Tracey Claeys over their combined tenure.

Now the Empire class is embarking on the Senior or redshirt junior seasons. Combined this group of recruits has 238 combined starts

Here is a look at just how much of an impact this class had.

The Elite

These guys are going to be drafted and depending on this season, may be drafted rather high. Arguably these two are the best player on either side of the ball for the Gophers. Actually it is a pretty easy argument.

  • Carter Coughlin- I’ll lead with the guy who got this whole Empire Class started. Coughlin was a leader from the get go and he has been a beast on the field. He has started every game as a sophomore and junior, he will be starting every game this season as well. He will be lined up at various positions in the front seven to take advantage of his unique skill set. Coughlin will be drafted next year and if he has a successful season he may be drafted very high. The kid has 18 sacks and 30.5 tackles for loss in his first three seasons, he will add to those numbers and move up the Gopher record books.
  • Tyler Johnson - Assuming Johnson puts up numbers close to what he put up last year (while playing with two freshman quarterbacks), he will end up being somewhere as one of the top 3 Gopher receivers of all time. He, like Coughlin, stands to be drafted very high following another successful season. The emergence of Rashod Bateman may cut into his numbers a little, but his impact on the field and as a legacy laying recruit are indisputable.

Multi-Year Starters

Can’t do it without these guys who are more than just depth, but absolutely critical to the success of the team. One could argue that some of these guys belong in the group above, but I reserved that section for Johnson and Carter alone.

But these guys are just as critical to the overall success of the Gophers both last year and this coming one. This group includes 5 defensive starters, two along the OL and then the uniquely talented Seth Green as an offensive skill position player. Most of these guys are going to start 30+ games over their Gopher careers and all have made significant impacts.

  • Conner Olson -Like the two names above, Olson may also be drafted but he is just a junior and has plenty of time to build up his NFL resume. Olson started all 25 games of his redshirt freshman and sophomore seasons. He has quickly become a fixture along that line and has the skill set to be a major factor at any of the three interior line spots.
  • Kamal Martin - Was not as highly recruited as some of the rest of the Empire Class but Martin has been a key member of the defense all three of his years and will be a guaranteed starter at OLB.
  • Thomas Barber - The next in line of the Barber family already has 208 tackles for his career along with 14.5 TFLs and five fumble recoveries. Starting all 25 games of his SO and JR years while playing in 11 as a FR. Barber is a fantastic middle linebacker.
  • Antoine Winfield Jr. - An interesting member of the Empire Class. Winfield at times has looked like the best defensive player on the Gopher roster but has also been limited to four games each of the last two years due to major injures. The good news is that he is technically a redshirt sophomore with two more years to play. But he already has 17 starts under his belt and made some fantastic plays throughout his Gopher career.
  • Coney Durr - Near the end of a very promising freshman season Durr also endured a significant injury. Over his career he has managed to start 10 games, playing in 20 and has two interceptions. He projects to start this year and presumably the next.
  • Kiondre Thomas - Six career starts in his first two years and 19 games played. Thomas may not be a regular starter this year but he will often be on the field and a key backup. Essentially no major offers out of high school in Arkansas but Thomas has been a valuable member of the secondary and still has 2 years left to contribute.
  • Sam Schlueter - Already 13 starts and contributed in 23 games, Schlueter is battling to be the team’s starting LT this coming season and even if he doesn’t win that battle, he will be a key backup and will contribute at some point.
  • Seth Green - Out of high school, Green was initially a 4-star QB committed to play for Oregon. Eventually he ended up here where he learned that playing quarterback at this level was not in his future. Turns out he has carved out a unique and incredibly valuable role in the Gopher offense. Green was the Wildcat quarterback as a redshirt sophomore where he rushed for 8 touchdowns, threw for 2 more and rushed for 282 yards. I wish I knew how many 3rd or 4th downs he converted last season, but it was significant.

Depth

  • Phillip Howard - A slot receiver who has played in 20 games over his career. His role should stay about the same this coming year but expect him to be on the field throughout the next two seasons.
  • Tai’yon Devers - made some noise early as a true freshman and considering he is still senior who hasn’t taken a redshirt, it is a little surprising he hasn’t made more contributions. But Devers has 4 career sacks and 3 forced fumbles while playing in 30 games.
  • Ko Kieft - has had more of an on the field impact that his numbers would indicate. But primarily a blocking TE who has 3 starts in 25 games and 3 career receptions.

The JUCO guys

Now having zero impact on the 2019 squad, all of these guys were key contributors and great finds. All but one of them only had two years of eligibility, they are all gone now but certainly contributed in 2016 and 2017. All of these guys were playing positions that needed depth in a major way.

  • Merrick Jackson - 7 starts and played in 24 games at defensive tackle.
  • Garrison Wright - 25 starts in all 25 games he was here for. Think he was a good nab from the JUCO ranks?
  • Donnell Greene - I love JUCO guys who can be a part of your program for three years. Greene started 29 games and played in 36 as a three-year guy. He was key to last year’s improved offensive line.
  • Kobe McCrary - Famously was the third back for PJ Fleck’s “pair and a spare” running backs in his first season. When Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith were both sidelined with injuries, McCrary stepped up and did well in 2017. For his career he had 11 touchdowns and 738 yards rushing.
  • Vincent Calhoun - 13 starts in 21 games along the offensive line and at a time when OL depth was at a premium.

Gone

Only 2 transfers and one guy decided to play football.

  • Drew Hmielewski - Was he going to be the next Eric Decker? Clearly not. Hmielewski quit football and is key member of the Gopher baseball team. Expected to start next year in the OF (possibly CF) and be a key member.
  • Tamarion Johnson - the only member from this particular recruiting class who was wrapped up in the sexual assault allegations that resulted in the bowl boycott and that whole debacle. Johnson ended up transferring to Independence JUCO and very well could be featured on this season’s Last Chance U.
  • Mark Williams - Came in hoping to play quarterback, was moved to WR where he saw some action before transferring closer to home.

Pretty incredible that this class hit on so many of the 21 signed recruits. The JUCO guys were absolutely critical and all panned out. Two or three guys are possibly going to be drafted in the first three rounds and so many are going to be 2 or 3 year starters.

This class built a foundation, this 2019 season is when they can really cement their legacy. It was an exciting class when they signed and this 2019 season is one that we should all be very excited about.