But during a visit to Cedar Grove High School outside Atlanta, Cheney’s head coach, Jermaine Smith, assured West there was a distinct chance the Gophers could net the four-star recruit, who had pledged to the Georgia Bulldogs and then the Alabama Crimson Tide before separations from both top programs.
“I told him that Rashad wasn’t the type of guy that wants to go to the biggest school, but the place where he thought he could fit,” Smith said.
Cheney, who is 6 feet 2 and 275 pounds, committed to the Gophers during his visit to Minneapolis on Dec. 8. With his pledge, he became the highest-rated recruit among the 23 expected to signs letters of intent when the early signing period opens Wednesday, Dec. 19.
Cheney, who had renewed offers from Georgia Tech, Mississippi and others, is among six defensive linemen in Minnesota’s 2019 class, the biggest total of any position group. Two other top tackles join Cheney: Kristian Williams, of Memphis, Tenn., the class’s No. 2-rated recruit, and Madison, Wis., native Keonte Schad, a top junior college transfer from Ellsworth Community College in Iowa.
“That position is definitely takeaway No. 1 of this class,” said Allen Trieu, a 247sports.com recruiting analyst.
The lack of underclass defensive linemen, especially tackles, was one of the first things Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck mentioned when assessing the roster he inherited in January 2017. He since has been working to address it with high school players and a sporadic JUCO transfer. But this year’s group is the biggest and highest-regarded crop yet.
At 6-3 and 275 pounds, Schad had scholarship offers and heightened interest from Oklahoma, Virginia Tech and others, but his in-person view of the Gophers’ 37-15 victory over Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium in November helped the U’s chances.
Williams, 6-3 and 297 pounds, joined Minnesota’s class on Friday. He visited Dinkytown in early December and then went to Indiana but canceled a trip to Missouri last weekend.
“That one, I think, took a lot of people by surprise, including some people that were connected to Minnesota,” Trieu said. “… He was going to maybe take all the way out until Wednesday, but that showed how much he really liked Minnesota, that he wanted to secure that spot before anybody else could jump in.”
The Gophers class had been near the 25-recruit limit throughout the fall, but in November, Minnesota walked away from its former top recruit, defensive end Jason Bargy of Momence, Ill., after a series of personal issues arose. The Gophers also parted with Euless, Texas, defensive tackle Chris Daniels, a transfer from Copiah-Lincoln Community College in Mississippi.
“There has been quite bit of turnover lately; that’s what’s been most interesting to me coming down the stretch,” said Josh Helmholdt, a rivals.com recruiting analyst. “I think we had a class that was at 23 commitments two months ago or so and is now at 23 commitments, but the makeup is different.”
The Gophers’ recruiting class ranks 33rd in the nation and eighth in the Big Ten, according to 247sports.com’s composite list. Minnesota was 38th in the country and seventh in the conference a year ago.
The Gophers’ incoming class has pulled in players from 11 states, with recruits from Minnesota leading the way with four, followed by three each from Georgia and Missouri. There’s also a shrinking from rarer places for the U to recruit in Pennsylvania and Nevada.
“That to me is what’s been most impressive is to get all these guys from different states represented in their class,” Trieu said.
The Gophers have not been shy about a desire to continue a “Peach State Pipeline” through Georgia, a state with what is considered to be a still-growing stable of talented players. Cheney is the latest top-flight example after four-star receiver Rashod Bateman was the Gophers top prize last year.
In June, Cheney accepted a fill-in invitation to Rivals100 Five-Star Challenge in Atlanta.
“It’s your best players in the country, and you are taking about a lot of five stars … and he was not at that tier, but I was impressed with the way he fought,” Helmboldt said. “… He was going every play against the best offensive linemen in the country. He kept jumping in there. He has a chip on his shoulder.”
Smith tried to explain why Cheney didn’t stick with the Bulldogs or Crimson Tide, the top programs in the Southeastern Conference.
“The Georgia situation was real early, so it was one of those things that was kind of spur of the moment,” said Smith, who with Cheney won a Class 3A state championship last week. “It’s the home school and you’re a 10th-grader and all that good stuff, but it kind of happened pretty fast.
“Then Alabama, he went down there and really enjoyed it,” Smith continued. “Things happened that he didn’t feel like it was going to be the best place for him, so we went from there.”
While it appears Georgia and Alabama went in other directions, it created an opportunity for the Gophers to pursue Cheney. He liked how the Gophers laid out a plan for him, which includes a chance to play early, Smith said.
“If you are going into Florida or Georgia or going into Texas, and you are an out-of-region team like Minnesota is, are you going to get the top-tier guys?” Helmboldt said. “It is going to be awfully tough. The second-tier guys, even them. There are so many teams competing for that. What do you have, a team 2,000 miles away, to offer? (Fleck) showed the ability to land some of those guys. That has been pretty impressive.”