Kill keeps most Minn. kids in state

Published 9:35 am Thursday, February 2, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS  — Frustrated Gophers football fans have long lamented the top-tier talent crossing the border for rival schools.

This year, most of it stayed home.

Minnesota’s 2012 recruiting class has a locally grown flavor, with 10 new players for this season from inside the state, and to hear coach Jerry Kill tell it, the seeds were sewn just as much by each other as they were by the Gophers staff. Mankato West quarterback Philip Nelson, the Associated Press Player of the Year for Minnesota high school football in 2011, was the lynchpin in the process.

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“Once Philip Nelson jumped on board … it was just kind of a domino effect,” Kill said Wednesday, after 19 national letters of intent were sent to the Gophers. Eight other scholarship players were already enrolled for the second semester, including Nelson, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound prospect who used to live in Wisconsin but spurned the Badgers and a hard sell by Iowa to stick with his Minnesota commitment.

With MarQueis Gray back for his senior year, Nelson is a candidate to be redshirted. But that’s not a guarantee.

“I want them to come in and think they’re going to play,” Kill said.

Nelson, in a recent video interview for the Gophers athletics website, said he’s sensed an excitement around the state about the local players who picked the university.

“I just want to be a part of the team and be a part of the turnaround,” Nelson said.

Only two Minnesota prep stars signed this year with other schools in the six major conferences, none in the Big Ten. But Hopkins wide receiver Andre McDonald, who had a previous verbal commitment to Vanderbilt, decided to stay home. Blue Earth offensive tackle Jonah Pirsig, a 6-foot-9, 295-pounder, had his mind made up. Lakeville South quarterback Mitch Leidner was also wooed by Iowa, but he didn’t waver.

“They truly want to be here. They truly want to make a difference. That’s a neat thing,” Kill said about the new players coming in. There’s a genuine relief and excitement in the air once the binding forms are faxed in and the whirlwind months of crisscrossing the country to sell teenagers on the school are over. Hyperbole-prone former coach Tim Brewster was as enthusiastic on signing day as he was all year.

The national recruiting analysts — surely an inexact science and sometimes biased — help bring some levity. The Gophers didn’t fare well there, despite their in-state success. Both and ranked the Gophers last in the Big Ten this year, with an average of 2.33 and 2.71 stars out of five, respectively. None of their signings were in Scout’s top 300 or Rivals’ top 250.

Kill didn’t try to spin this, knowing he’s in charge of a team coming off consecutive 3-9 finishes.

“Notre Dame recruits to Notre Dame. Butler basketball recruits to Butler. Minnesota has got to recruit to Minnesota,” Kill said. “I feel good about this group and where we need to go to compete at the level that we need to compete at in the Big Ten.”

Speed was a high priority. Another Minnesotan, Isaac Fruechte, from Caledonia High School via Rochester Community and Technical College, will be a sophomore this season as one of six junior college transfers in this class. He’ll join McDonald, Jamel Harbison (Charlotte, N.C.) and KJ Maye (Mobile, Ala.) in a fast group of first-year wide receivers.

“The great thing about Andre, when I sat at his house, there was no question this is what he wanted to do at the end of the day,” Kill said. “He figured out this was what was best for him, and that was good.”

McDonald’s arrival is arguably Kill’s best get of the year, considering the persuasion he and his assistants used. McDonald’s coach at Hopkins, John DenHartog, praised the Gophers for their approach.

“That’s the most passionate staff I’ve ever been around,” DenHartog said. “It’s also a group of men who come to the kids honestly and give them the facts and the advantages of what things they can do. They don’t try to sell a dream that’s not realistic. I appreciate that, and I think the kids appreciate that, too.”