Every year, like clockwork, the topic of football recruiting will come up and at least one Gopher fan will ask the question: “Why can’t Minnesota keep in-state talent?”
It’s a question built on the false premise that an elite program convinces most, if not all of the state’s top talent to stay home. But not every kid grows up wanting to play for the hometown team. In fact, there are many who see college as an opportunity to spread their wings and get away from home. But as far as some fans are concerned, the expectation is for the Gophers to retain the talent in their own backyard. And to their point, head coach P.J. Fleck shares their ambitions, even if closing the border has been easier said than done for his coaching staff.
The Gophers have not signed the state’s top-ranked recruit since 2017, when Marshall offensive lineman Blaise Andries stuck with his commitment even after then head coach Tracy Claeys was fired. But Minnesota has only signed the state’s top-ranked recruit three times in the last decade, so this is a trend that pre-dates the Fleck regime. And to the credit of Fleck and co., Minnesota has represented fertile recruiting round. Just this season, in-state recruits like Andries, Boye Mafe, Brevyn Spann-Ford, Josh Aune, Cody Lindenberg, and Nathan Boe have all contributed.
“I think the guys who have always wanted to be Gophers and dreamed of being a Gopher, I think we’ve done a really good job with those guys,” Fleck said in his press conference on Monday, reiterating the staff’s focus on doing everything they can to keep in-state talent in-state. “We’ve been here almost four years. We’ve made strides in that department. There are schools with culture sustainability who’ve maybe had a jump-start of decades on that.”
It wouldn’t be a leap to interpret that as a veiled reference to Wisconsin. The Badgers have poached the No. 1-ranked recruit in Minnesota the last two years, signing Minnehaha Academy linebacker Kaden Johnson last December and preparing to sign Lakeville South offensive tackle Riley Mahlman on Wednesday. Wisconsin has also effectively closed their own borders. The Badgers signed the state’s top five recruits for 2020 a season ago and currently have commitments from the state’s top six recruits for 2021. You’d have to go back to 2016 to find the last time a top-ranked Wisconsin recruit snubbed the Badgers.
Fleck said it is no secret that programs have recruited against them by pointing out Minnesota has not had an offensive lineman drafted to the NFL since 2006. Comparatively, border rivals Iowa and Wisconsin have had 13 and 14 offensive linemen, respectively, drafted since 2006.
“Those are recruiting tools and tactics. Fair game,” he opined. “But that’s about to change.”
The Gophers’ lack of recent success against Wisconsin on the field is also undoubtedly a factor in how the rival programs are perceived on the recruiting trail. Consider that the recruits who will sign on Wednesday were toddlers when the Badgers started their 14-game winning streak over Minnesota in 2004. All they’ve ever known is Wisconsin beating Minnesota. It is going to take more than one win over Wisconsin and one 11-win season to change that perception.
To his credit, Fleck understands that this is not going to happen overnight, referencing the “10-year-old right now who is watching the Gophers.” He also brought up the importance of the program’s youth camps, which allow kids to have fun and develop a positive connection with the University of Minnesota and the football program at an early age.
“We want people in the state of Minnesota that can play at our university or the Big Ten level to stay home and be here at the University of Minnesota, period. Is that going to happen overnight? Is that even going to happen in four years? No. We know that, but we’re making strides every year, every day to make sure that that happens one day.”
The Gophers’ current recruiting class is ranked 26th nationally and 8th in the Big Ten, according to 247 Sports. Shakopee defensive end Deven Eastern and Annandale offensive tackle Logan Purcell are the lone in-state commitments, but Minnesota could be in line for a third if North Senior defensive end Davon Townley opts to sign with the Gophers over Arizona State on Wednesday.