Head coach P.J. Fleck and his coaching staff have wrapped up National Signing Day, with 19 recruits — including a grad transfer and a preferred walk-on — signing on the dotted line to play for the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Now that these high school players have officially become soon-to-be Gophers, we take a look at the most exciting or intriguing new additions.
Class MVP: Athan Kaliakmanis
P.J. Fleck has talked about recruiting players who are “the right fit” for the culture at Minnesota. He stresses the need to find players who want to come to Minnesota and be a part of what Fleck and co. are building. Athan Kaliakmanis is the perfect example. He and his brother Dino both committed to Minnesota on March 27, 2019. That is nearly two years ahead of Early National Signing Day, and their commitments never wavered. Now that is a commitment.
Athan is also the highest-rated quarterback recruit to sign with Minnesota since the Tim Brewster era. He is 6’4”, possesses the arm strength to make all the necessary throws, and boasts a quick release. Athan also shows poise and calm in the pocket, but has the athleticism to keep plays alive. All the physical tools are there for him to be an elite quarterback at Minnesota.
Instant Impact - Offense: Lemeke Brockington
The Gophers will need to reload at wide receiver with Rashod Bateman headed to the NFL and who better to help fill the void than another playmaker from Georgia? The first thing that stands out about Brockington is his physicality. He is thin and will need to fill out his frame in college, but he has already flashed the ability to go up and challenge for the ball and fight through tackles after the catch. Brockington also shows impressive burst off the line of scrimmage, can beat man-to-man coverage, and has the speed to take the top off the defense. He is a polished route runner and was expected to be able to run the entire route tree at his high school.
Minnesota is young at the wide receiver position, so Brockington won’t be competing against a lot of experienced players, opening the door for him to make an early impact.
Instant Impact - Defense: Steven Ortiz
Depending on whether or not Justus Harris opts to use his extra year of eligibility and return next fall, Ortiz could be in the mix to replace him at slot corner, competing against Solomon Brown and Jalen Glaze. Ortiz is everything you could ask for at the nickel position. He is comfortable in one-on-one coverage and can stick to receivers in and out of their breaks. He also has good ball skills and great instincts. Ortiz has shown the ability to shed receivers at the line of scrimmage and make plays against the run, and he can blitz from the perimeter, too.
Most Underrated: Devon Williams
It’s no secret that Minnesota needs help at the linebacker position. If you’re looking for an immediate impact, Abilene Christian transfer linebacker Jack Gibbens is your man. But in terms of potential, there is a lot to like about Ohio linebacker Devon Williams.
His measurables may not grab your attention, but his play on the field certainly will. Williams can do it all. He can play physical against the run, use his quickness to come off the edge as a pass rusher, and feel comfortable dropping into coverage. Best of all, he plays more physical than he looks, fighting through blocks and running through contact to make tackles.
Biggest Steal: Justin Walley
The Gophers’ top-ranked recruit, Avante Dickerson, may have opted out of signing at all on Wednesday after yielding to the full-court press from Nebraska, but there is reason to be excited about the other defensive backs in this class, specifically Justin Walley.
Walley is a Mississippi product who had offers from both in-state Power 5 schools and even has a family connection to Mississippi State, where his older brother is starting at wide receiver as a true freshman. But Walley saw a chance to forge his own path at Minnesota. The Class 6A Mississippi Mr. Football will be a cornerback with the Gophers, but played running back, wide receiver, and defensive back in high school. He tallied 55 tackles, two interceptions, and two blocked kicks on defense, and racked up 1,005 rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns and 28 receptions for 329 receiving yards for one receiving touchdown on offense.
Walley is a playmaker, plain and simple. He brings athleticism, physicality, and versatility to Minnesota’s secondary. His upside is off the charts.
Best Nickname: Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving
I can see the headlines now... “Bucky drops Badgers, picks up Axe.” Or something like that. You get the idea! Forget that skunk packed inside a box of popcorn. The only “Bucky” we recognize from this point forward will be Illinois native and running back Mar’Keise Irving.
You’ll be elated to hear that Irving shares traits with the Big Ten Running Back of the Year. Both Irving and Mohamed Ibrahim are compact backs who may not have top-end speed but can break tackles, stay on their feet through contact, and find their way through traffic. Irving will need to bulk up a bit, but he has the skill set to thrive in the Gophers’ zone blocking scheme.