Gophers land 23 players on National Signing Day

PJ Fleck wants to bring a championship culture to the University of Minnesota. It’s something fans and alumni have been wanting now for more than 50 years.

It takes time, and it also takes recruiting. Lots of recruiting. Wednesday marked National Signing Day for high school seniors, where they put pen to paper and make their college decisions official. Fleck signed 23 players to his 2019 recruiting class, and he’s not done.

For the second straight year, he’s projected to sign a class ranked in the top-40 nationally. Last year’s class ranked No. 38 in the country. It’s the first time since 2008-09 under Tim Brewster that the Gophers have had consecutive recruiting classes ranked in the top-40. Brewster’s two classes were ranked No. 26 and 35, respectively.

Many of the players Fleck signed chose Minnesota after having offers from multiple schools. Some chose the Gophers over national powers Alabama and Georgia.

“When you get in big boy fights, that’s what we want to be in is big boy fights. That’s what we want to be able to have in our program. We want people to look at us that way,” Fleck said. “We’ll recruit against anybody and we want to be in those positions.”

Fleck’s biggest focus for the 2019 class was on defense. That’s after he focused largely on offense in his first full recruiting class last year. The Gophers signed six defensive linemen, two linebackers and three defensive backs among the 23 to sign on Wednesday.

Fleck said they also kept two to three scholarships open for January, a popular time for transfers and graduate transfers to pick schools.

Fleck kept four of Minnesota’s top six players home from the 2019 class. Eden Prairie quarterback Cole Kramer, Owatonna running back Jason Williamson, Perham defensive lineman Logan Richter and Cretin-Derham Hall wide receiver Peter Udoibok all signed with the Gophers on Wednesday.

“Cole is a football guy coming from a historic football program,” Fleck said.

Kramer is also first cousins with current Gophers linebacker Carter Coughlin, and was Minnesota’s first verbal commitment for the 2019 class.

Fleck also raved about signing Jason Williamson, a star running back out of Owatonna. This season alone, Williamson ran for more than 3,000 yards and had 47 rushing touchdowns.

“He’s Mr. Football, any time you get Mr. Football to stay home, it’s really, really big for your school,” Fleck said.

The top two that didn’t stay home are Quinn Carroll of Edina and Bryce Benhart of Lakeville North. Both offensive linemen, Carroll signed with Notre Dame and Benhart signed with Nebraska.

Regardless of what happens in next week’s Quick Lane Bowl, Fleck said the quarterback competition will be open. The best player will play, and it’ll be a competition between returners Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad, and new signees Kramer and Jacob Clark. Clark threw for more than 6,000 yards and 60 touchdowns in his high school career.

“This guy is a gun slinger, he has incredible intangibles,” Fleck said.

Two of his biggest defensive signees included linemen Keonte Schad and Rashad Cheney Jr. Schad is a 6-3, 275-pound lineman of out Madison, Wis. As a junior college transfer, he's ranked by ESPN as the No. 20 overall prospect and No. 2 defensive tackle. He had 23.5 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and recovered two fumbles as a sophomore.

Cheney had committed both to Alabama and Georgia before ending up with the Gophers. He's a 6-2, 280 pound lineman out of Atlanta, Ga., and is ranked No. 215 in the ESPN 300. He had 45 tackles for a loss and seven sacks in leading his high school team to a 14-1 season and state championship.

“He’s been committed to some of the greatest programs in the country. Marcus West was right there for us with him the whole time, and that was the biggest difference for us,” Fleck said.

Cheney is the highest-ranked player to sign with the Gophers out of Georgia, and that’s with getting Rashod Bateman to come to Minnesota last season. He had an immediate impact as a wide receiver with 49 catches for 670 yards and six touchdowns.

Of the 23 who signed Wednesday, four have received 4-star status nationally. Cheney is ranked among the ESPN top 300 players in the country. The Gophers will have 13 players enroll early in January for spring practice.

Fleck said he expects many of his 2019 signees to play as freshmen, just like many of the 2018 signees played this year. As many as eight freshmen will play on offense in next week’s Quick Lane Bowl.