Gophers football has not had a representative in All-American Bowl since 2016; now they have 2
Minnesota flipped a pair of receivers before signing day
The University of Minnesota football program stayed out of plain sight — or, rather, in a gopher hole — when recruiting high school receivers Kenric Lanier II and T.J. McWilliams.
Lanier, of Decatur, Georgia, committed to Vanderbilt in June, but the Gophers didn’t go away. McWilliams, of Indianapolis, pledged to Purdue in June, too, yet Minnesota stayed in touch last fall.
Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck has said recruiting doesn’t truly begin until a prospect says he is coming to your school, and Minnesota also has been on the opposite side of this dynamic — at the same position and within this recruiting cycle.
In October, receiver Tyler Brown, of Greensboro, South Carolina, left Minnesota’s 2023 class and committed to powerhouse Clemson. Anthony Brown, of Springfield, Ohio, was an early commit to Minnesota in September 2021 but exited the class in February and signed with Kentucky in December. (Anthony is unrelated to Tyler, but is the brother of Gophers receiver Mike Brown-Stephens.)
Both Lainer and McWilliams will participate in the All-American Bowl at the Alamodome in San Antonio on Saturday. The receiving duo, each with three-star ratings, are the first Gophers signees to participate in the high school showcase since four-star defensive end Carter Coughlin in 2016.
Days before the early-signing period opened on Dec. 21, both Lanier and McWilliams visited the campus and flipped their commitments to the Gophers. It might have seemed sudden at the time, but it was far from it.
Kevin O’Shea coached McWilliams at North Central High School. It was the 30th overall season for O’Shea, who was inducted into the Indiana Football Coaches Association Hall of Fame in June.
“You gotta give (the Gophers) credit,” O’Shea said. “They would make that phone call every now and then just to say, ‘Hey, how are things going? You’re still good at Purdue?’ They were very good about not pushing the limit. But just letting him know that, ‘Hey, look, we’re still here.’ As a just in case.”
Then Boilermakers coach Jeff Brohm left to take the job at Louisville, his alma mater, on Dec. 7.
“It happened real fast,” O’Shea said. “T.J. got the phone call from Minnesota, and they started talking.”
O’Shea, who stepped down as North Central coach after this past season, was on vacation in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, when a Gophers coach texted him, saying things were looking good for T.J. to commit to Minnesota.
Vanderbilt didn’t have a coaching change to help spur Lanier to change his mind. In fact, Commodores coach Clark Lea and P.J. Fleck were both in Decatur in early December to visit Lanier.
“I know he was recruited or committed to an SEC school, but it wasn’t like we flipped him late,” Fleck said. “We’ve been recruiting him for a long time. It’s been great to get to know him and his family. He’s a tremendous athlete.”
Decatur coach William Felton said Minnesota “got more aggressive” in its recruiting of Lanier in the month before signing day, with multiple visits and communications.
“I wouldn’t say it was a shock, but it was sort of surprising to all of us,” Felton said of Lanier switching to Minnesota. “At the end of the day, I tell all my kids it’s a business. You always gotta do it right for your situation. They felt that was the best decision right now for him on and off the field.”
At 6-foot-2, 190 pounds, Lanier was a three-sport star. As a senior, he was Georgia’s Region 5-AAAAA offensive player of the year with 62 receptions for 1,156 yards (18 yards per catch) and 12 touchdowns. He added 96 rushing yards and a touchdown, while contributing 32 tackles as a safety.
Lanier was also the region’s basketball player of the year as a sophomore and junior. He played shooting guard but went into the paint on defense, given Decatur’s lack of size.
“Ken had to do a lot of the dirty work, from getting boards and banging with a lot of teams’ big man,” Felton said. “Ken was not a big, by far. But with his stature, athleticism and strength, he was able to compete.”
Lanier was a sprinter on the track team who jumped 22 feet, 5 inches in the long jump. “That’s without us even having a track at the school,” Felton said. “He practiced jumping into the volleyball pit.”
At 6-1, 170, McWilliams had 38 receptions for 447 yards (11.7 per catch) and three touchdowns his final high school season. He also was a threat on punt and kickoff returns. He had to overcome the loss of his starting quarterback to a broken thumb and an injury to the top running back as North Central endured an 0-10 season.
“It made for some harrowing experiences,” O’Shea said. “But from T.J.’s standpoint, T.J. was elected captain for a reason, he was a worker, he put in the time in the offseason, he put in the time that he needed to during the summer.
“Even for the time where he rolled an ankle when he was out for a couple of weeks, he was there, coaching his teammates and coaching those younger kids that were taking this position. … He’s a good leader. He’s quiet. But he plays his tail off.”
McWilliams also plays basketball, and Fleck called him the night before signing day to check if another school wasn’t swooping in. Fleck didn’t catch him at a good time.
“He’s like, ‘Coach, I’m in the middle of workout. Can I let you go?’ ” Fleck recalled. “ ‘Listen, I’m just making signing tomorrow?’ ”
Fleck recalled McWilliams saying: “Yeah, I’m good. I’m good.’ Then we hung up. We get a little paranoid the night before signing day.”
McWilliams’s sister, Jasmine, is a junior on the Northwestern women’s basketball team. His father, Terrance, played with Brohm on the Louisville football team that won the 1991 Fiesta Bowl.
“The game doesn’t get too big for him,” O’Shea said about the familial influences. “When there were 8 or 10,000 people in the stands, that doesn’t bother them that much. When we were on TV, it doesn’t bother him. He just knows how to play the game. … I really think his best days are coming in college. He’s going to have a guy (Athan Kaliakmanis) that can spin the ball a little bit. And he can be in a program that’s been successful.”
The Gophers have a third receiver in the 2023 class, Donielle “Nuke” Hayes, and Simon mentioned Hayes’ speed as his top attribute.
“Kenric, and really T.J., too, both of those guys are — I wouldn’t say polished; that is a hard word to say — but they are as polished as high school guys can be,” Simon said. “… We are certainly excited about all three of those guys.”
Gophers incoming punter Caleb McGrath of Eastview High School played in Under Armour Next All-America Game in Orlando, Florida, on Tuesday. McGrath is a preferred walk-on from Apple Valley who averaged 40.4 yards per punt as a senior. His father Daniel played baseball at Minnesota from 1997-00 and his mother Susan (nee) Shudlick played volleyball at Minnesota from 1996-99. … In the All-American Bowl, McWilliams will play for the West squad; Lanier for the East. The game will air on NBC and stream on Peacock at noon Saturday. … Lanier will join Minnesota as an early enrollee in January; McWilliams will come in June.
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