Gophers football building 2023 recruiting class with big in-state linemen
In head coach P.J. Fleck’s six recruiting classes since taking over the program in 2017, the U has signed an average of 3.6 scholarship players from Minnesota, ranging from a high of five in 2017 to a low of two in 2021
The Gophers football program wants players from the state of Minnesota to be the foundation of each recruiting class. The rub is the state’s talent base doesn’t run more than a few inches deep, so the U must look elsewhere for the majority of signees every year.
In head coach P.J. Fleck’s six recruiting classes since taking over the program in 2017, the U has signed an average of 3.6 scholarship players from Minnesota, ranging from a high of five in 2017 to a low of two in 2021.
When it comes to offensive and defensive linemen from Minnesota, the U has signed an average of 1.5 per class, ranging from highs of two — with Boye Mafe and Blaise Andries being its best examples in ’17 — to no fewer than one.
Meanwhile, three of the state’s highest-rated high school linemen in that six-year span have gone elsewhere — Quinn Carroll to Notre Dame in 2019, Riley Mahlman to Wisconsin in 2021 and Lucas Heyer to Stanford last year. Carroll, of Edina, will come back to the Gophers for this fall.
For next year’s recruiting class, the Gophers are on pace to exceed those six-year averages. Of the U’s seven total commitments in the 2023 class, four are linemen from Minnesota — Osseo’s Jerome Williams, Kasson-Mantorville’s Reese Tripp and a pair from Prior Lake, Greg Johnson and Martin Owusu.
“Minnesota is where we start. I’ve said that for years,” Fleck said Monday during the first stop on the U’s Coaches Caravan in Chaska. “It’s always where we start. My whole goal in taking the job here was changing people’s thoughts, perceptions and ideas of the University of Minnesota, our football program and what it means to be a Gopher. And what you can do if you come here.”
A vision of the future is a primary pitch the Gophers are using for the No. 1 in-state recruit in the 2023 class: Robbinsdale Cooper athlete Jaxon Howard, who could play tight end or defensive end in college. When Howard joined that foursome of U commits to watch the U’s spring game on April 30, the Gophers staff made sure Howard met Mafe, who the Seattle Seahawks selected 40th overall in the NFL draft the night before.
Howard, a four-star prospect with more than 50 scholarship offers, plans to make his decision in July after taking official visits in June. It will be interesting to see what kind of pull to be a hometown hero there will be and what kind of opportunities to profit off his name, image and likeness (NIL) might be on the table at the U and other places such as Miami (Fla.) and LSU.
The Gophers’ commits, including the out-of-state pledges, have been publicly pushing for Howard to join them, especially on Twitter.
The Gophers program’s approach to recruiting the state of Minnesota hasn’t changed much, but a few high school coaches of in-state commits in next year’s class felt U coaches were more present at schools during the start of this cycle. That might be just because they had more sought-after prospects.
Prior Lake coach Matt Gegenheimer has forged a strong relationship with U receivers coach Matt Simon, a Farmington alum and a primary recruiter for the state.
“I think the Gophers really did a good job this year being more visible in high schools,” Gegenheimer said. “And I think they tried to get out to as many high schools as they could. So I think as a Minnesota fan, it’s exciting to get these good in-state kids to commit.”
Howard isn’t the only in-state prospect the Gophers are pursuing. Moorhead defensive lineman Elinneus Davis will take official visits to the U, Iowa State, Washington and Vanderbilt. With four of the Power Five conference schools represented, Spuds head coach Kevin Feeney has joked about why the Atlantic Coast Conference isn’t in the mix.
While Moorhead is more than 230 miles from Minneapolis, Feeney said Gophers coaches — in particular, Simon — have routinely made the trek to the northwest. “He’s kind of made this a regular stop on the recruiting trail,” Feeney said. “They’ve done a really good job.”
Fleck said in his five seasons, especially after the team finished 11-2 in 2019 and 9-4 in 2021, the Gophers have shown “glimpses of what it’s going to look like and can look like. I hope that our entire state has seen that and the more Minnesota kids that we have the better it can be and the bigger it can be.”
Under Fleck, the Gophers have won two of their past four games against Wisconsin for Paul Bunyan’s Axe, but fell to 0-5 against Iowa in games with Floyd of Rosedale on the line.
“The more people from Minnesota you have, the greater the rivalry between Wisconsin and Minnesota is. And the more Minnesota kids you have on your team, the greater the rivalry between Minnesota and Iowa is because they grew up in it,” Fleck said.
But, again, the rub is there often are fewer than 10 players in Minnesota every year that are offered scholarships from Power Five conference programs.
Here’s a look at the four Minnesotans currently on Gophers’ board for next year:
6-foot-4, 315 pounds
Osseo’s freshman football coach saw Williams in the high school’s hallway two years ago and knew he wasn’t pursing his best-suited after-school activity.
“When we first met him, it was the hoop dream,” Orioles coach Ryan Stockhaus said. “He thought he was going to be a scholarship basketball player.”
Stockhaus told Williams that with his size — then roughly 6-foot-2 and 265 pounds — he should be on the football field. As a sophomore, Williams started on varsity at offensive tackle in rugged Class 6A competition but was raw. He added about 20 pounds for his junior year and refined his skills.
“Absolutely ridiculous how good he got,” Stockhaus said.
Colleges thought he could play at the next level, too, with Iowa State, Kansas, Missouri and several Big Ten schools showing interest. “I think a lot of people, quite frankly, expected him to go to the U and they became a big player,” Stockhause said. “I think some people kind of waited that out.”
Williams knows his best football is in front of him and isn’t afraid to receive a “tongue lashing,” in the name of constructive criticism to get better, Stockhaus said. The Orioles coach said Williams was named captain for next season and has refereed to him a “big gazelle.”
“We haven’t seen him play (ticked) off yet,” Stockhaus said. “He just kind of goes out there and does his thing…. He works his tail off, but it just looks effortless.”
At 375 pounds, Tripp was the last player off the ball during a summer camp in Sioux Falls, S.D., a year ago, so head coach Joel Swanson and his offensive coordinator at Kasson-Mantorville had a chat with Tripp. To keep his spot, he needed to lose weight.
“He did it,” Swanson said. “He continued to get better throughout the year. And then I remember he asked me about going both ways.”
Swanson said Trapp would need to lose another 20 pounds to have the stamina to play offense and defense. Tripp, who also plays baseball, lost more weight, getting down to 310. And by the end of the football season he was able to play defensive tackle in addition to his role at guard. (The small school in southeastern Minnesota runs the option and wants bigger linemen in the interior.)
“Did I anticipate he was going to be a Division I prospect? I definitely can’t say that,” Swanson said.
While idle time during COVID quarantine wasn’t kind to Tripp’s figure, he has showed a hungry appetite to play the game.
“Sometimes you’ll go, ‘Well, this guy is big, but he’s a teddy bear,’ ” Swanson said. But, “(Tripp) has a little bit of a mean streak in him.”
In September, Division III Wisconsin-River Falls provided him an offer. Temple was the first Division I scholarship offer in November, followed by Iowa State, Central Michigan and Minnesota. He committed to Minnesota in January.
“I don’t think they had to twist his arm,” Swanson said of the Gophers. “Because it was always a dream of his.”
The Lakers have had a few recent alums become Gophers — tight end Nick Hart and linebacker Blake Weber in the mid-2010s, along with running back Preston Jelen, who is on the current roster and recovering from a knee injury.
Their representation in Dinkytown is about to multiply with two big boys.
Since their sophomore seasons, Owusu has added roughly 30 pounds and Johnson has piled on upwards of 40 pounds. The added size helped attract the local Big Ten school.
Johnson “has just been shooting up, I swear to god, he’s getting bigger every day,” Gegenheimer said.
Owusu is also a varsity wrestler and wasn’t afraid to take his lumps on the mat at the beginning of his high school career before he began to have success. The knowledge of hand fighting and leverage that he gets via wresting will continue to hep him on a collegiate D-line.
Gegenheimer called Johnson a “nasty kid” on the football field.
The primary schools seeking Johnson’s commitment were Iowa State, Wyoming and some Mid-American Conference schools. Owusu’s suitors were Kansas State, Iowa State, Washington State, Washington, California and others.
The Gophers won out on both players. “I’m really impressed with what P.J. has done at the U,” Gegenheimer said. “Just from an overall culture standpoint, it’s nice to have somebody at the helm that is really, really making a change.”
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