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Minnesota Football Recruiting: P.J. Fleck’s recruiting has room to grow in the Big Ten

Evaluating the Gophers’ recruiting under P.J. Fleck

Minnesota v Northwestern Photo by Nuccio DiNuzzo/Getty Images

Recruiting has been the theme for the month of June since P.J. Fleck was hired at Minnesota. This year has been no different, with eight recruits grabbing an oar and verbally committing to the Minnesota Golden Gophers this month. With recruiting heating up and the fall season still in what feels like the distant future, talk has naturally shifted to how Fleck is faring on the recruiting trail and whether he is living up to his reputation as an elite recruiter.

So let’s talk about it.

How does P.J. Fleck compare with his predecessors?

Internet recruiting rankings did not exist prior to the 21st century, and I don’t know how much weight I’d put into the recruiting evals of the aughts. I mean, Clint Brewster was a four-star quarterback prospect according to at least one recruiting service. At the end of the day, recruiting is not an exact science. For every four-star prospect who ends up a first round pick in the NFL Draft, there is another who never sees meaningful snaps at the college level.

It’s easy to get caught up in stars and ratings, but the truth is that there is no tried and true formula or method for predicting the future success of a high school athlete. Player ratings are an educated guess, at best. I will concede that the ability of recruiting sites to effectively and accurately evaluate the prospects of a prospect has probably improved over the years as more and more resources are dedicated to recruiting. I’d still recommend a grain of salt.

But conversations about recruiting are much less interesting without rankings. So for the purpose of this post, we’re going to give them at least some weight.

Going as far back as Tim Brewster — considering how skeptical I am of today’s recruiting rankings, I have next to no faith in the validity of recruiting rankings during the Glen Mason era — let’s see how Fleck stacks up against his predecessors:

Minnesota Head Coach Recruiting Rankings

Year Head Coach Big Ten Rank National Rank Avg. Rating
Year Head Coach Big Ten Rank National Rank Avg. Rating
2021 P.J. Fleck 8th 38th 0.8718
2020 P.J. Fleck 9th 38th 0.8580
2019 P.J. Fleck 10th 45th 0.8579
2018 P.J. Fleck 7th 38th 0.8622
2017 P.J. Fleck 12th 59th 0.8324
2016 Tracy Claeys 8th 46th 0.8391
2015 Jerry Kill 13th 63rd 0.8314
2014 Jerry Kill 11th 57th 0.8310
2013 Jerry Kill 14th 67th 0.8253
2012 Jerry Kill 12th 59th 0.8185
2011 Jerry Kill 12th 57th 0.8141
2010 Tim Brewster 9th 52nd 0.8371
2009 Tim Brewster 8th 35th 0.8603
2008 Tim Brewster 4th 26th 0.8553
2007 Tim Brewster 10th 48th 0.8192

A couple observations:

  • Last year’s recruiting class, even after losing top-ranked commit Avante Dickerson to Oregon, posted the highest average rating (.8718) of any class in program history.
  • In terms of average rating, Fleck has signed four of the program’s Top 5 classes. His 2018 class ranks second, and Tim Brewster’s 2009 class checks in at third.
  • Only Fleck, Brewster, and Tracy Claeys have signed classes that ranked in the Top 10 in the Big Ten. Fleck and Brewster each have three Top 10 classes, and Claeys signed one.
  • Minnesota has never signed a Top 25 recruiting class. Brewster came the closest with his 26th-ranked class. Fleck has had three Top 40 finishes, but none ranked higher than 38th.

Has recruiting improved under Fleck? Absolutely. No matter how you slice it, Fleck has elevated the Gophers’ recruiting compared to his predecessors.

But how about from a conference perspective?

P.J. Fleck vs. the rest of the Big Ten

The highest-ranked recruiting class in program history was signed by Tim Brewster. His 2008 class ranked 4th in the Big Ten and 26th nationally. Let’s turn back the clock:

Big Ten Recruiting Rankings, 2008

Rank Big Ten Team Points
Rank Big Ten Team Points
1 Ohio State 271.03
2 Michigan 261.55
3 Illinois 220.63
4 Minnesota 214
5 Wisconsin 192.63
6 Penn State 189.29
7 Michigan State 186.02
8 Purdue 171.26
9 Iowa 169.8
10 Indiana 145.51
11 Northwestern 141.43

Now let’s look at the 2021 recruiting class:

Big Ten Recruiting Rankings, 2021

Rank Big Ten Team Points
Rank Big Ten Team Points
1 Ohio State 309.49
2 Michigan 260.6
3 Wisconsin 240.8
4 Maryland 230.29
5 Nebraska 216.5
6 Penn State 216.43
7 Iowa 213.89
8 Minnesota 199.4
9 Rutgers 191.67
10 Michigan State 190.6
11 Northwestern 184.3
12 Indiana 177.78
13 Illinois 161.95
14 Purdue 159.72

Notice anything? For starters, the Big Ten has gained three teams since 2008, but the floor has been raised in terms of recruiting. Northwestern was pulling up the rear in 2008 with 141.43 points, whereas Purdue ranked last in the conference this year with 159.72. The conference has collectively stepped up their game, with seven teams tallying 200 points or more in 2021, compared to four teams in 2009. Brewster’s 2008 class, with 214 points, would have ranked 7th in the Big Ten this year, only one spot ahead of where Fleck’s class finished.

My takeaway is that recruiting has gotten tougher in the Big Ten. Ohio State and Michigan are always going to get theirs. Programs like Wisconsin (.730 winning percentage since 2011), Iowa (.632), and Penn State (.672) have better track records than Minnesota (.540) in the last decade and that carries weight in recruiting. Then there’s always going to be one or two rebuilding programs like Maryland or Purdue that can pull a Brewster and land a handful of hot prospects on the promise of playing time, and Minnesota is well past that stage of the Fleck era.

I keep coming back to Kevin Eastman’s three pillars of trust, which Fleck has cited on more than one occasion: Time, proof, and consistency. He has had time at Minnesota, with four seasons under his belt now. There is proof that he can succeed here after improving the team’s win total in each of his first three season, culminating in the program’s first 11-win season since 1904. The challenge now is consistency, which is easier said than done as evidenced by last season.

The fact of the matter is that Minnesota is not Texas. Texas has finished in the Top 10 in recruiting in four of the last five years, yet they’ve only had one Top 10 season finish during that span — and even that was with a 10-4 record. They are located in a recruiting hotbed and can attract top talent, regardless of their record, based on their reputation. Minnesota does not have that luxury.

Fleck is recruiting better than any Minnesota coach during the internet recruiting era. To take the next step and start competing with the upper half of the Big Ten on the recruiting trail, he is going to have to demonstrate he can consistently compete with them on the field.