Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Gopher football head coach P.J. Fleck has stayed busy building the future of his program. He's seen impressive results.
Following the Gophers' breakout 2019 season, players across the country are buying into Fleck's system and culture. That has translated into recruiting. Despite struggling with recruiting in the past, the Gophers are quietly becoming a team that can attract four-star recruits to come to Minneapolis.
And Fleck has landed a pair of four-stars in the defensive backfield in Avante Dickerson and Steven Ortiz Jr. It wasn't the typical recruiting process for Fleck. Not only did he have to sell Dickerson and Ortiz Jr. on the program but also on the campus, facilities and surrounding area. Neither athlete has visited campus outside of Zoom virtual tours.
Nevertheless, Dickerson and Ortiz committed to the program in April and will join the Gophers in 2021 following the departure of starting cornerbacks Coney Durr and Benjamin St-Juste, who will graduate after the 2020 season. Dickerson and Ortiz, who are touted by scouts as lockdown corners with excellent ball skills, will look to fill the void of Durr and St-Juste upon their arrival.
Dickerson, a native of Omaha, Nebraska, is the top-ranked Gophers' recruit in 2021. He earned a .9486 rating from 247sports, making him the second-highest-rated recruit for Minnesota in the internet era.
Before committing to Minnesota, Dickerson nearly chose fellow Big Ten school Ohio State. Dickerson became close with former Buckeye assistant coach Jeff Hafley, who had spearheaded Dickerson's recruitment to OSU, but Hafley instead accepted a job offer at Boston College. After that switch, Dickerson had to rethink his decision. He chose Minnesota.
“I never visited Minnesota. During coronavirus, I was confused about what to do because I couldn’t go to any campuses and see their facilities. I committed to Minnesota because out of all of the colleges I was looking at, they cared about me the most, and I appreciated that," he said.
A recent conversation with Durr also aided in Dickerson's decision to come to the University.
“I asked him a ton of stuff about [cornerbacks] coach [Paul] Haynes. After talking with Coney, I got to know coach Haynes and watched some film with him. I really enjoyed both of them, and it was a big reason why I ended up signing at Minnesota," Dickerson said.
Haynes recently joined the Gophers' coaching staff in February, taking over for Rod Chance who left for the Oregon Ducks.
Dickerson's skillset provides the Gophers with a lockdown corner whose speed, athleticism and ability to break on the ball will prevent receivers from finding space. His versatility is evident at Westside High School, where he is a two-way player taking snaps in the slot and as a running back.
While Dickerson is a more traditional defensive back, Ortiz, out of Goodyear, Arizona, is a player that Desert Edge High School Head Football Coach Marcus Carter described as being like a Swiss Army knife.
“Steven can play corner, nickel and safety well, which can make him useful in a lot of different defensive schemes," Carter said.
Carter said that Ortiz is best suited to play nickel since he isn’t tall enough to play safety and cover deep balls. However, he is fast and knows how to tackle.
“We call him on our team ‘the scorpion’ because he is our best defensive player and is relentless in coverage and being physical," he said. "He would excel as a guy who covers speedy slot guys and fills holes to stuff running backs at the line of scrimmage. He likes to get his nose dirty and is really fast, running a 4.5 40-yard dash.”
Ortiz Jr. told Sports360AZ he chose Minnesota because “they have great academics, they have a great culture and great coaches ... it’s also a great fit for me.”
Carter added that the freedom Ortiz will have at Minnesota will make him a better player moving forward.
“This is what Steven was born to do. At this stage of his life, he does an incredible job at least on our team at Desert Edge in being a leader to look up to. I think this fit at Minnesota will be seamless," he said. "What I love about P.J. Fleck is that he lets players be themselves. And for Steven to have that freedom, it’ll make him a better player and a better man.”
Ultimately, Fleck was the main reason both Dickerson and Ortiz chose Minnesota. Both felt Fleck had a unique energy and that he was genuine and honest, not the sleazy salesman type. Carter added that Fleck is a "people person," and it rubs off well on his prospective recruits.
In addition to Dickerson and Ortiz, the Gophers will also add a trio of three-star defensive recruits in defensive end Deven Eastern, outside linebacker Devon Williams and safety Darius Green for the 2021 season.