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Yes, Gophers are young this season, but they'll be younger next year

Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck celebrates with wide receiver Tyler Johnson (6) during the first half against the Maryland on Saturday, Sept. 30, at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has cautioned repeatedly that next year's football team will be younger than this year's — and that's after talking about how young this team is.

A plethora of departures from the 2014 and '15 recruiting classes — which will combine to form next year's seniors and redshirt seniors — are a driving force behind Minnesota's youth remaining a central theme into 2018.

From the 2014 class, half of Minnesota's 22 scholarship players departed before this season. Of those still here, seven will be redshirt seniors next season, only three of whom are current starters — running back Rodney Smith, center Jared Weyler and defensive tackle Gary Moore. Plus, former walk-on kicker Emmit Carpenter.

From 2015, one-third of the Gophers' 24 scholarship players are gone. Six still with the team will be seniors in 2018, two of whom are starters — safety Jacob Huff and cornerback Antonio Shenault. Top running back Shannon Brooks and contributing linebacker Blake Cashman are also in that group.

When discussing the Gophers' game against Illinois (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten) at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, Fleck mentioned that the Illini have played a lot of freshmen in Lovie Smith's second season and how the Gophers (3-3, 0-3) likely will do the same next fall.

"If you see us even next year, that's what we'll look like," Fleck said Tuesday. "I told you we're going to get younger before we get more experience."

The Gophers' roster of 111 players has 36 freshmen — 22 on scholarship and 14 walk-ons. Three players have removed redshirts this season — receiver Demetrius Douglas, defensive end Nate Umlor and safety Ken Handy-Holly. After suffering an injury in a nonconference game, Douglas is seeking a medical redshirt this season. Cornerback Justus Harris is expected to soon remove his redshirt, while offensive tackle Blaise Andries has come close but has avoided losing his redshirt thus far.

The Gophers expect to sign about 25 players for the 2018 class, with another handful of walk-ons. Some have potential of playing next fall, with quarterback Brennan Armstrong and defensive end Alex Reigelsperger at the top of the list.

When Reigelsperger, a four-star recruit from Dayton, Ohio, gave an oral commitment Sunday, the Gophers' class reached 23 pledges and now ranks 34th in the nation and eighth in the Big Ten, according to

The Gophers' 2015 class ranked 63rd in the nation and 13th in the Big Ten; the 2014 class was 57th in the country and 11th in the Big Ten.

Smith and Brooks are two of the stars from those recruiting classes. If either running back decides to leave early for the NFL, the Gophers' lack of returning experienced players would suffer a substantial blow.

The Gophers have backfilled holes with a few senior-to-be transfers — left tackle Donnell Greene, of Coffeeville (Kan.) Community College, came in under former coach Tracy Claeys and is in his second season as a starter. He will be joined by Fleck's addition of defensive tackle O.J. Smith, a transfer from Alabama.

The departures from the 2014-15 classes have come for a plethora of reasons, and some of attrition is inevitable in any program.

"It's remarkable," said redshirt senior receiver Eric Carter. "Just talking to some of the guys that didn't make it through and talking to guys that did, I just feel like it's been a blessing to stick it out and deal with the coaching changes and different players coming in."

The biggest departure from the 2014 class was running back Jeff Jones, the top-ranked recruit in Minnesota who was kicked off the team after several drug-related offenses. Four others transferred, and six gave up football.

The biggest source for Minnesota's departures have come through three expulsions — cornerbacks KiAnte Hardin, Ray Buford and safety Dior Johnson. The members of the 2015 class were removed from school for their alleged roles in the sexual misconduct case last year.

Also in the 2015 class, starting center Tyler Moore transferred to Oklahoma State before retiring from football last offseason. Running back James Johannesson transferred to North Dakota, where he fills a backup role. Defensive tackle Mose Hall and offensive lineman Ted Stieber also departed.

Eleven players from the 2015 class could be redshirt juniors next season, including offensive tackle Nick Connelly, cornerback Zo Craighton and quarterback Demry Croft. But further attrition can still occur for players who decide to go elsewhere or don't fit Fleck's culture.

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.