As maroon-and-gold-clad diners lunched at the Tipsy Steer in Roseville on Tuesday, P.J. Fleck delivered a dose of reality regarding the state of college football in 2023 during his weekly appearance there for his radio show.
The Gophers coach was discussing true freshman running back Darius Taylor, the Detroit native who ranks second in the nation in rushing yards per game and chose Minnesota over Michigan and other prominent programs. Fleck took a quick detour and let it be known just how important name, image and likeness (NIL) financial deals have become in keeping players like Taylor on campus.
"We had players that were here that are now gone and playing at another school that should be here playing right now — because NIL," Fleck said. "We didn't pay him; we didn't pay him enough. That is the fact of life, and I know we all laugh at it, but that is a fact.
"So, if we want to keep players ... all these guys we have, they won't be here next year," Fleck continued. "I'm making sure everybody understands. ... They won't be here. We'll be a Triple-A ballclub for somebody else. That is the reality and the truth of the situation. So, please contact Dinkytown Athletes."
Dinkytown Athletes is an NIL collective officially endorsed by the Gophers athletic department. Its goal is to help student-athletes develop opportunities with businesses and sponsors so they can make money off their name, image and likeness. Fans can become members by donating money and can support the collective by purchasing goods and services. Gophers kicker Dragan Kesich, for example, has "Serbian Hammer" T-shirts and hoodies selling on Athletes Thread, an NIL-focused business.
Fleck's timing might rub some the wrong way in the wake of the collapse at Northwestern, but his point is valid. The Gophers don't have a Phil Knight or a T. Boone Pickens to fund their NIL efforts. Instead, a grassroots approach is needed.
Linked hand-in-hand with NIL deals in changing the face of college sports is the transfer portal, with which the NCAA allows undergraduates to transfer once without the penalty of sitting out a season at their new school. It's created a Wild West scenario where teams have to fend off opponents waiting to raid their rosters.
Fleck didn't name the player to which he referred during the radio show, but the Gophers have had prominent players leave for other programs for a variety of reasons. Here are some that are making noticeable impacts:
Mar'Keise "Bucky" Irving, RB, Oregon: When the Gophers lost their top four running backs during the 2021 season, Irving, a true freshman, and Ky Thomas, a redshirt freshman, filled in admirably. Thomas led the team with 824 rushing yards, while Irving was second with 699. Thomas left for Kansas shortly after being named offensive MVP of the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, while Irving entered the portal in the spring of 2022.
Irving ended up at Oregon and in August 2022 told DuckTerritory, a 247Sports website, that a reason for his transfer was to play in an offense that better used his versatile skills. If NIL money had an impact, it went unsaid. Irving led the Ducks with 1,058 rushing yards and added 31 receptions last year. Through four games this season, he's rushed 37 times for 305 yards and three touchdowns and has 15 receptions for 114 yards for the ninth-ranked Ducks.
Thomas left Kansas after the 2022 season and transferred to Kent State.
The Rutgers trio: Defensive back Michael "Flip" Dixon is Rutgers' third-leading tackler with 28 stops and has one interception. Offensive guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. is in his second season as a starter, while defensive lineman Mayan Ahanotu has eight tackles.
Three at South Florida: Linebacker DJ Gordon IV is the Bulls' second-leading tackler with 25 and has 5½ tackles for loss. Defensive lineman Rashad Cheney has 10 tackles, 1½ for loss. Wide receiver Mike Brown-Stephens has one catch.
Other prominent former Gophers
Georgia Tech LB Braelen Oliver: 10 tackles.
Kansas DE Austin Booker: 11 tackles, 3½ sacks.
Kansas DL Gage Keys: four tackles.
SMU LB JaQwondis Burns: five tackles, one sack.
TCU WR Dylan Wright: two catches, 44 yards, one TD.
Texas DT Trill Carter: two tackles, one QB hurry.
Western Michigan LB Donald Willis: 13 tackles, one sack.
West Virginia DB Beanie Bishop: 21 tackles, two interceptions.