Jerry Kill and Tracy Claeys have combined to win 31 games in the past four seasons for Minnesota, which is the second-most total in a four-year span in the past 100 years for the Golden Gophers.
They did so by developing unheralded players, which was critical because the Gophers have not been able to recruit at the level of even mid-pack Big Ten teams. Kill had to rebuild from the Tim Brewster era, but even with five straight bowl appearances, Minnesota has finished higher than 11th in 247Sports’ Big Ten recruiting ranks only once in the past five years.
Enter P.J. Fleck, one of the best young head coaches in the country. Not only did Fleck build Western Michigan into the class of the Mid-American Conference, but he was able to recruit at the school like no one ever has in that conference.
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Will Fleck be able to transfer his prowess to the Big Ten, and help improve Minnesota’s ability to recruit? If he can, the Gophers could shake up the Big Ten West. A few coaching staffs on that side of the conference are probably a little nervous about what Fleck, and new Purdue coach Jeff Brohm, are going to be able to do on the recruiting trail.
Western Michigan had the top-ranked recruiting class in the conference for three straight cycles (2014-16). The Broncos had become the Alabama of the MAC on the recruiting trail, and Fleck’s crew turned it into success in 2016, going 13-0 before losing to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.
The MAC has been known for years for its relative parity. There is no Boise State in the MAC, at least not since Marshall ruled the league in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Northern Illinois and Bowling Green met in three straight league title games before 2016, but Fleck’s Broncos were only the third team to run through the MAC undefeated since 2003.
Row the boat
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In 2014, Western Michigan finished ahead of Illinois in the final team recruiting rankings. The second-best MAC team, Toledo, was 22 places behind the Broncos. Last year they finished ahead of Illinois and Purdue, and similarly smoked the rest of the MAC.
Fleck and his coaching staff dominated Michigan when it came to second-tier recruits. The Broncos weren’t going to beat Michigan, Michigan State or other elite Power 5 schools for top-level players, but they did crush Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan while also poaching some top 15-20 players in the state that could have ended up at lesser Big Ten programs.
The other great source of talent in that part of the country is Illinois, and Fleck was able to leverage his ties in the state. He is an Illinois native and both played and coached at Northern Illinois, which is a short drive from all the Chicagoland talent.
Western Michigan also branched out, grabbing players from Wisconsin and Indiana while also hitting the areas that every program in the Midwest wants to recruit in (Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Florida). Here’s a look at where Western Michigan’s recruits have come from during the 2014-16 cycles:
Fleck and his staff will now be going into the homes of prospects in those states to sell Big Ten football, not life in the MAC. He should have more financial resources to see more prospects more efficiently, and if Fleck doesn’t right now, he’ll attack that problem with the fervor that he shows on the recruiting trail.
He’s already been more successful in some areas than Minnesota has been recently. In the past four years, there have been 54 prospects in the state of Wisconsin that earned at least a .800 rating from the 247Sports composite. Minnesota has landed two of them, one in 2013 and one in 2014. Fleck and the Broncos came looking for more than cheese curds in 2016, and signed three of the top 16 players, including two of the top six.
Minnesota has landed one of the top 104 players from Indiana in the past four years. Western Michigan signed three in 2016. The Gophers have done better in Illinois, and that’s something Fleck will obviously try to continue.
There are two more places where Fleck could try to improve Minnesota’s work on the trail. One is at home.
The Gophers signed six of the top 19 players in Minnesota from 2013-16. They landed just one top-two player in the state in that span, while those other seven prospects ended up at places like Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Oregon, Ohio State, Alabama, Arkansas and Iowa.
Minnesota did sign the top in-state player last season, OLB Carter Coughlin, and the Gophers currently have five of the top 11 players in the 2017 class committed. Fleck will need to keep more of the top players in the state at home. He won’t have other similar in-state schools to battle with like the other directional schools in Michigan.
The other state is Iowa. Minnesota has signed one of the top 37 players from Iowa in the past four years. Iowa and Iowa State do a pretty good job of keeping players at home, but that’s a border state where Fleck could try to make some inroads in the near future.
Fleck could have a serious rebuilding job forthcoming, depending on the fallout from the sexual assault case that left 10 players suspended, a poorly-conceived, short-lived boycott and a coaching change. Players have fumed about Claeys’ firing, so maybe some will leave.
Regardless, this could be an opportunity for Fleck to prove his credentials as an elite recruiter at a higher level. It could also put Minnesota in a place it hasn’t been.
Just landing a couple of recruiting classes ranked inside the top-35 or top-40 would get the Gophers’ talent base into the middle of the pack in the conference, but more importantly near the top of the West. While everyone in the East is chasing Ohio State and Michigan, the top teams in the West aren’t at that recruiting level.
A recruiting class ranked in the mid-30s nationally might rank fifth or sixth in the East, but it could be first or second in the West. Here’s how each West team has finished in the national recruiting rankings the past four years.
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If Fleck’s coaching staff can also identify unheralded players and develop them like Kill’s crew did, the Gophers could definitely take another step beyond eight- or nine-win seasons and challenge for the Big Ten West division title.