College football crowns its national champion in January and sees its conference races play out in October and November. Still, there's an argument that June is just as important in building championship teams because that's when many high school seniors-to-be take their official visits to campuses and make their decisions.
For the Gophers, Friday through Sunday marks their "Summer Splash'' weekend, when they'll have upward of 30 recruits and their parents on campus. Coach P.J. Fleck and his staff will try to convince those who haven't pledged for the 2023 class that Minnesota is the place to be and those who have committed to stay with their choice.
So far, Fleck and Co. are putting together a strong class, according to Allen Trieu, a national recruiting analyst for 247Sports. Minnesota has nine players committed to the 2023 group, which ranks 22nd nationally and sixth in the Big Ten in the 247Sports composite ratings of major recruiting services. While those ratings will change as teams add commitments, it's an early improvement from Minnesota's 18-player 2022 class, which ranked 49th nationally and last in the Big Ten after the late signing period in February.
"This class is going to be stronger in terms of the rankings,'' Trieu said. "In recruiting we often grade it on who commits and who signs, which is obviously the bottom line, but if you also look at the type of players they're getting to campus, who is considering them, they're doing an exceptional job.''
The Gophers' most coveted target who'll make his official visit this weekend is Cooper's Jaxon Howard, a four-star recruit who's listed in the athlete category and projects as a defensive lineman but also plays tight end for the Hawks. Howard, 6-4 and 245 pounds, is the top-ranked player in Minnesota in the 247Sports composite. He has narrowed his choice to four programs and will visit each, beginning with the Gophers and followed by Michigan (June 17), LSU (June 21) and Miami of Florida (June 24).
"He's been to a lot of places and looked at a lot of different schools, and he's never once forgotten about Minnesota. He's always made his way back,'' Trieu said. "You still have to feel good about being in the game at least. It's going to be a tough battle — Minnesota knows that. I don't think anybody thinks Minnesota's the favorite, but they do think Minnesota's still hanging around and giving themselves a puncher's chance.''
Five of the nine players who have verbally committed to the Gophers are in-state recruits, led by four-star offensive lineman Jerome Williams of Osseo. He'll be joined by four three-star Minnesotans on campus this weekend: offensive tackles Reese Tripp of Kasson-Mantorville and Greg Johnson of Prior Lake, defensive lineman Martin Owusu of Prior Lake and linebacker Alex Elliott of Hutchinson.
"In-state recruiting always depends on what kind of talent you're dealing with in different years,'' Trieu said, "and they have a good year here.''
Fleck has mined other states, too, highlighted by a backfield duo from Walled Lake (Mich.) Western High School. Running back Darius Taylor and quarterback Drew Viotto have committed to the Gophers and will make their official visits this weekend.
“If you also look at the type of players they're getting to campus, who is considering them, they're doing an exceptional job.”
Taylor, a 5-11, 187-pound former wide receiver, rushed for nearly 1,400 yards and had more than 700 receiving yards in 2021. The Gophers beat out Iowa, Michigan State, and Maryland, among others, for his services.
"He's always been a dynamic athlete,'' Walled Lake Western coach Kory Cioroch said. "The move to running back let him showcase what he can do with the ball in his hands.''
Taylor helped convince Viotto to pick the Gophers, too. A 6-4, 215-pound native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Viotto and his family moved to Michigan to further his football career. He originally committed to Eastern Michigan before switching to the Gophers.
"Drew has always showcased a really, really powerful arm and has extreme arm talent,'' Cioroch said. "He had Division I offers before he even played a snap of varsity football.''