Some view juco transfers as simply stopgap measures. For the Gophers, they're a necessity.
By TYLER MASON FS North
MINNEAPOLIS — The goal for many high school football players is to eventually get a scholarship to play Division I football.
That's not always how it plays out, though.
For some, a stop at a junior college is a necessity before a Division I scholarship is a possibility. That includes a handful of players on the University of Minnesota football team, as those junior college transfers are now looking to help the Gophers improve on last season's 3-9 record.
"The biggest advantage for us is it fills some holes that we (have)," said head coach Jerry Kill, in his second season at Minnesota. "We lost seven (starters), and we can't replace them with seven freshmen. We've got some gaps in recruiting that we have to fill."
Kill and his staff have filled some of those holes with junior college players, several of whom figure to get significant playing time this season. Among those is wide receiver Isaac Fruechte, who played one season at Rochester Technical Community College before transferring to Minnesota. He redshirted the 2011 season to retain three years of NCAA eligibility.
Now, the sophomore from Caledonia, Minn., is hoping he can contribute after gaining a year of experience at the juco level. He was also with Minnesota's football program in the spring, giving him a leg up on some of the team's incoming players.
"I would say you're more used to the speed of the game and the size. Sometimes maybe not, depending upon what league you play in," Fruechte said of the differences between Division I and junior college ball. "Definitely, the offense is more complex up here, but at junior college, it gets you ready for this a little more."
Coming out of Caledonia High School, Fruechte received a few offers to walk on at Division I schools, including Minnesota. But without a scholarship, he couldn't afford to go to his dream school.
So he chose the junior college route, which also allowed him to get more playing time as a freshman than he likely would have with the Gophers. He ended up at RCTC for a year, a school that ran the spread offense and fit what he was looking for as a wide receiver. Fruechte caught 30 passes for 805 yards and nine touchdowns in his lone season there and is now fighting for a chance to become one of quarterback MarQueis Gray's targets.
"He's still learning," Kill said of Fruechte. "But coming in in January gave him a start to learn the system. Now he's not thinking as much, so that gives him a jump-start."
Another junior college transfer who could get significant playing time this year is running back James Gillum, who spent two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College before coming to Minnesota. Through fall camp, Gillum has appeared to have a leg up as the team's No. 1 running back.
The experience Gillum gained while playing two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast certainly helps.
"Everybody's probably a little faster (in Division I), but it's the same thing — everybody loves football," Gillum said. "I know they're going to come to play just like they did at juco. I'm just waiting for the competition."
Minnesota will also rely on the likes of defensive backs Jeremy Baltazar (Blinn College), Briean Boddy (Coffeyville Community College) and Martez Shabazz (Trinity Valley Community College) and defensive lineman Roland Johnson (Butler County Community College).
Shabazz, originally from DeSoto, Texas, said his grades weren't the greatest coming out of high school. So he spent two seasons at Trinity Valley, where he earned All-Southwest Junior College Football Conference honors as a sophomore. From there, he found himself in Dinkytown.
"I had a good chance to come in and play right away," Shabazz said of playing at Minnesota. "That's what most junior college people look for after junior college."
Fruechte, Shabazz and others were able to take part in spring practices, along with several of the freshmen who enrolled early. In the eyes of the coaching staff, the early reps in the spring are huge for junior college transfers.
"Coach Kill talks about it. He says, 'When you bring in a junior college kid to start the season, don't really count on them until about Week 4,'" Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "Because it's such an adjustment when school starts, trying to figure out where they're living, figure out where they fit on the team. But when they come through in the spring, that all basically gets out of their system and now they're veterans."
The junior college transfers may be veterans, but their shelf life at Minnesota is also shorter than players who enter the program as freshmen, given that they've played at least one year of college football. What their presence does, however, is allow the Gophers to plug in juco transfers temporarily while Minnesota's redshirt freshmen get a year to develop.
There's no perfect recipe for a successful recruiting class when it comes to mixing junior college transfers with freshmen, but the Gophers seem happy with how they've done things so far on Kill's watch.
"It's just part of building a program," Kill said of junior college transfers. "We haven't got the roof on or anything else. We've got the foundation, and we're chipping away. We've only had one true recruiting class, but that recruiting class I think is proving right now in camp that it's pretty good."