Gophers benefit from Kill’s first full offseason

MINNEAPOLIS — Golden Gophers head football coach Jerry Kill finally had his first full offseason to recruit, and it appears to be paying dividends.

Kill, who took over the program in December 2010, has been able to keep much of Minnesota’s high school talent in the state. It’s a concept that had eluded Gophers teams in years past, as Minnesota saw top prospects cross the borders to Wisconsin or Iowa.

Minnesota’s 2011 recruiting class included five of the top 10 recruits in the state, as ranked by Scout.com. In 2010, the Gophers kept just three of the state’s top 10 high school players in Minnesota.

This year, however, the Gophers landed seven of the state’s ten best recruits. Those seven will be among the other Minnesota commits signing National Letters of Intent on Wednesday.

“For a group of coaches to do that in their second year when that’s not necessarily their native territory, I think they’ve put an emphasis on keeping a fence around the best players in Minnesota and it seems to be working,” said Allen Trieu, recruiting analyst for Scout.com. “To me, if there’s one main storyline of this class, that’s kind of what we’ve noticed.”

The Gophers didn’t land Nick Davidson, the top-ranked prospect in Minnesota. The Eden Prairie High School offensive tackle committed to Stanford. But as Trieu noted, Davidson “isn’t really from Minnesota,” as he moved here from North Carolina prior to his senior season when his father, Jeff, was hired as the Vikings’ offensive line coach.

The other two top-10 Minnesota prospects the Gophers didn’t land were Will Johnson, a tight end from Osseo who committed to West Virginia, and Cretin-Derham Hall defensive lineman Jonathan Harden, who will play at Western Michigan.

But there was plenty of other talent in Minnesota, and many chose to play for Kill and the Gophers. That includes offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig of Blue Earth Area High School, the state’s No. 2 prospect. Listed at 6-foot-9 and 290 pounds, Pirsig should help shore up an offensive line that struggled with consistency in 2011.

“He had offers from Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio State, Michigan — even the U of Miami came up and offered him a scholarship,” Trieu said of Pirsig. “So for them to keep him at home, that’s a great job. At Blue Earth, he’s not seeing a ton of other Division I kids, and he’s not going up against a lot of other Division I kids. So he’ll have to adjust to seeing some guys that are closer to his size, but I think he’s got all the physical tools you look for.”

Another prize recruit of this year’s class is Mankato West quarterback Philip Nelson, the state’s top quarterback who was ranked No. 4 overall in the state by Scout.com. Nelson is listed at just over 6-foot-2, 212 pounds.

The Gophers had question marks at quarterback entering the 2011 season, but junior MarQueis Gray held down the starting job all season. While he’ll likely be the team’s starter again, Nelson could assume that role when Gray’s time is done.

“He can move around and throw on the run pretty well, so I think that’s going to be an asset that’s going to help him,” Trieu said of Nelson. “He closed the (recruiting) process down early. He probably would have picked up more offers, but he knew where he wanted to go. He knew he wanted to be a Gopher, and he committed early.”

And late last week, the Gophers received a commitment — again — from wide receiver Andre McDonald. The Hopkins senior originally committed to Minnesota, changed his commitment to Vanderbilt and then changed it back to the Gophers again after an assistant coach left Vanderbilt.

The 6-foot-3 McDonald was rated as the top wide receiver in Minnesota and the state’s eighth-best recruit. The Gophers are losing top wide receiver Da’Jon McKnight and could certainly use depth at the position.

Aside from the big names, there are other recruits that Trieu said will be players to watch in this Gophers recruiting class. That includes another Minnesotan, lineman Isaac Hayes from St. Thomas Academy. Trieu also is impressed by defensive back Dinero Moss, a two-star cornerback from Piper High School in Sunrise, Fla.

“He didn’t have a lot of other offers, isn’t ranked necessarily real high across the board, but he’s big,” Trieu said of Moss. “I like big, physical corners, and that’s him. He’s 6 feet tall out on that corner. I think that gives him a chance to play early.”

As for a sleeper in this year’s recruiting class? Trieu said Wayzata offensive tackle Ben Lauer could surprise people. Lauer, a two-star recruit, is listed at 6-foot-6, 270 pounds.

“He got injured as a junior. I think that really affected his recruitment,” Trieu said. “I think had he stayed healthy, you would have seen him as definitely one of the top guys in the Midwest.”

The Gophers still aren’t recruiting at the same levels as the Ohio States or Michigans of the Big Ten — Scout.com ranks Minnesota’s recruiting class 62nd overall and second-to-last in the conference — but Trieu said the numbers could be deceiving.

“I would not take that ranking too seriously because I think as the Big Ten goes, there’s a bunch of teams kind of clustered up in one spot,” he said. “They’re going to have to find a couple diamonds in the rough in this class, but I think there’s a lot of talent here.”

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter @FSNtylermason.