Meet PJ’s 4-Star Pillars of 2021 Gophers Recruiting

Photo: Tim Boyle - News-Sun

Minnesota Gophers football coach, PJ Fleck, said multiple times on Wednesday during his 1 hour and 9 minute National Signing Day press conference that, “it’s not about the stars”.

Yet… recruiting conversations always seems to revolve around stars and rankings, based on stars. Why? Because, racking up stars right now usually leads to wins and future NFL draftees later (unless you’re Michigan or Nebraska).

And since PJ Fleck has arrived on campus, more stars have walked into Athletes Village than ever before. Nothing about that changed this week, when Fleck earned four commitments from 4-star recruits.

That number doesn’t include Nebraska 4-star DB, Avante Dickerson, who would have easily topped this list but got cold feet Wednesday morning. If Dickerson does commit, the 2021 recruiting class immediately goes from “standard Fleck” to historic.

But let’s get back to the 4-star prospects who did officially grab oars on Wednesday morning. There were four of them and they mean more than just cream-of-the-crop talent to this 2021 class. Leadership and “it” factor isn’t hard to find with this group.

Athan Kaliakmanis | Quarterback | Antioch, IL

247Sports Rating: .8963 4-Star
Offers: Iowa, Iowa State, Purdue, Tennessee

One of two Kaliakmanis brothers to sign on the dotted line Wednesday, Athan was the first commitment PJ got for the 2021 class, nearly two years ago. He’s been steady throughout his entire commitment and he’s been all but dubbed the Minnesota Gophers’ QB of the future.

Until Dickerson signs, he’s the highest-rated commit of this class and he has all the leadership and immeasurables you need in your future QB. On the field, Athan can do it all. He can run, he can throw and he looks damn smooth doing both. At 6’4″, 210+ pounds, he has all of the physical tools to lead a team in the Big ten.

Unfortunately, Illinois canceled their high school football season so we haven’t seen the latest and greatest version of either Kaliakmanis brother. They will have a spring high school season, however.

Trajectory: The additional year of eligibility for Tanner Morgan, Zack Annexstad and the rest of the current Gopher QB’s makes Athan’s trajectory more difficult to project. We could see Kaliakmanis as early as 2022, depending on how college ready he is.

Steven Ortiz Jr. | Defensive Back | Goodyear, AZ

247Sports Rating: .8958 4-Star
Offers: Arizona, Penn State, Cal, Oregon, Washington

Another leader of this Minnesota Gophers class, Steven Ortiz Jr. is combo-guy that every coach wants at the top of their recruiting class. Ortiz Jr and his family are one of the glue-families of this class.

This is a very tight-knit group and that’s thanks to families like Ortiz’, Kaliakmanis’ and Deven Eastern’s (more on him shortly).

Just like Athan, Ortiz Jr brings it on the football field too. Having a kid who can say and do all the right things is helpful, but finding those personality traits combined with elite talent… is harder.

Steven brings a ton of tenacity and athleticism to the secondary. In some of his film, he seems to know the receiver’s route before he runs it. But I love his physicality. You don’t have to watch a lot of tackles to know how much a defensive back likes to hit. He either likes to do it or he doesn’t.

Ortiz Jr. clearly enjoys hitting people. That’s a big deal at defensive back because it’s not a trait that all the good ones have. But you can’t have versatility if you’re afraid of getting dirty.

Steven can play safety, nickel and outside cornerback. No matter where he plays, the Arizona native has the talent and intangibles to succeed early.

Trajectory: The Gophers have a lot to fix in the secondary and Ortiz has a lot of versatility to offer. If he can grasp the playbook right away, we could see him as soon as 2021. 2022 is probably more realistic.

Mar’Keise (Bucky) Irving | Running Back | Hillcrest, IL

247Sports Rating: .8930 4-Star
Offers: Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska, Iowa, S. Carolina

I mean… what more do you need to read from me, after watching that highlight reel? Even if those were the best 5-6 runs of his career, does it matter? This dude looks like a mixture of Barry Sanders and the Tecmo Bowl version of Bo Jackson.

If he’s juking, they can’t touch him, if he’s sprinting they can’t catch him and if he’s stiff arming, they can’t tackle him. I mean some of those clips are completely absurd. He’s playing against some of the best competition in all of Illinois but he’s making them look like a bunch of 8th-graders.

People were worried about Bucky’s commitment early on, especially since his best bud, Sam Jackson, committed and decommitted from the Minnesota Gophers twice before eventually signing with TCU on Wednesday. But, Irving has hung strong and now the Gophers have ANOTHER running back in their arsenal of future backfield weapons.

Trajectory: Bucky is an interesting case. He can return kickoffs, punts and catch the ball out of the backfield. I’d like to say we could see Irving as soon as 2021 but there is A LOT of talent right now at running back for Minnesota.

Deven Eastern | Defensive End | Shakopee, MN

247Sports Rating: .8912 4-Star
Offers: Nebraska, Missouri

Deven Eastern hails from Shakopee, MN and he’s the only hometown 4-star PJ Fleck pulled in. He and his family are another of those glue-types that keeps this class so tightly-knit.

I love seeing highly-rated Minnesota kids stay home. It sets such a huge example for future athletes of this state. Kids really do look up to you when you are a young top athlete and you can help make your home school the cool place to be.

Obviously, Eastern is a Minnesota kid who holds 4-stars so you can be damn sure those stars are legit. Deven plays with speed and seems to have an extra awareness about him on the football field.

Not only was he bigger and faster than everyone while playing for Shakopee high school, but Eastern plays smarter too. Even in those clips above, you can see him recognize screens and chase down running backs with great angles.

We’ve seen how important those things are in young players this season, as we’ve watched a bunch of youngsters on defense try to learn how to play D1-fast at a very young age.

Trajectory: The defensive line play has been up and down all season for the Gophers but it has a really talented mix of lower and upper classmen. If Eastern can come in and play hard, smart and fast… he could earn a spot as early as 2022 but it’s gonna be dog fight on the DL to get playing time over the next few years. We’ll see if Eastern can be one of the top dogs in that friendly fight.

Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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