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P.J. Fleck, as football coaches tend to be on the eve of national signing day, was nervous Tuesday. The Gophers coach had received a verbal commitment from Darius Taylor, a talented running back from Walled Lake (Mich.) Western High School, back in April, before Taylor put together a huge season of 2,450 rushing yards and 36 touchdowns.

Suddenly, schools like two-time reigning Big Ten champion Michigan, along with Notre Dame, Iowa and Wisconsin, showed more interest in Taylor. And with the interest came name, image and likeness (NIL) financial opportunities that the Gophers couldn't match.

"It just became more money and more money and more money,'' Fleck said.

Fleck doesn't have to worry any longer. Early Wednesday morning — at 7 a.m. Eastern time — Taylor became the first player in the Gophers recruiting class of 2023 to sign his national letter of intent on the opening of the three-day early signing period.

The 5-11, 202-pounder just might be the gem of Minnesota's class, a four-star standout who could make an immediate impact in the fall of 2023.

"He picked us for all the right reasons,'' Fleck said. "He picked us for the relationships. He picked us for the opportunity.''

Taylor is part of a Gophers recruiting class that includes 21 incoming scholarship freshmen, five scholarship transfers and seven preferred walk-ons. As of late Wednesday night, the Gophers' class ranked 41st nationally and ninth among Big Ten teams in the 247Sports composite ratings of national recruiting services. In the transfer rankings, the Gophers were 15th nationally. The rankings are fluid as teams will add players through Friday in the early signing period and from Feb. 1 to April 1 in the traditional period.

Fleck also was pleased to keep Prior Lake defensive lineman Martin Owusu and offensive lineman Greg Johnson, who received offers from Wisconsin on Tuesday. Fleck said the Badgers' pitches included "negative recruiting.''

"[Owusu] showed me all the text message of [Wisconsin coaches] doing everything they can to negative recruit, negative recruit, negative recruit to flip us and it didn't work, so we Axed it,'' Fleck said, adding fuel to the rivalry for Paul Bunyan's Axe.

"That's what's great: You get to see all the text messages,'' Fleck added. "… You get to see all these grown men negative recruit. Beautiful. And I appreciate everybody sharing those with us because we don't negative recruit.''

Badgers coach Luke Fickell, who left Cincinnati in late November, denied negatively recruiting.

"I won't negative recruit,'' Fickell told reporters Wednesday. "I'm not saying somebody didn't call. I know we maybe reached out to somebody. But I wouldn't think we would've said anything negative about anybody going anywhere. We've got plenty of positives to say about what it is we do.''

Plugging some holes

The Gophers recruiting class was heavy on addressing needs and developing depth for the future. Some highlights:

Wide receiver: Minnesota's passing game struggled after top wideout Chris Autman-Bell was lost for the season in the third game, so Fleck and his staff set out to improve their receiving corps. They could get immediate help in transfers Elijah Spencer, who caught 57 passes for 943 yards and nine touchdowns for Charlotte, and Corey Crooms Jr., who had 57 grabs for 814 yards and five TDs for Western Michigan. On the prep front, Minnesota flipped TJ McWilliams from Purdue and Kenric Lanier II from Vanderbilt.

Offensive line: "Coach [Brian] Callahan is a very happy man today,'' Fleck said of his offensive line coach, who'll have five incoming freshmen to work with in 2023.

Phillip Daniels, a 6-5, 285-pounder from Cincinnati, was a late signee with the Gophers on Wednesday after earlier pledging to Pittsburgh. He's a good pickup to a group that includes Osseo's Jerome Williams, a 6-4, 295-pound four-star recruit who's the highest-ranked player in the Gophers' class.

Linebacker: Western Michigan transfer Ryan Selig could slot into a starting role in his final season of eligibility, while incoming freshman Matt Kingsbury is a thumper from Chicago St. Rita in a Mariano Sori-Marin mold, according to Fleck.

Overall, Fleck was pleased with the class he and his staff have assembled and didn't rule out adding personnel later this winter.

"This is a phenomenal class,'' Fleck said. "… There's a combination of a lot of different people in this class. It fills a lot of needs.''