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A strong 2016 recruiting class for Minnesota looks to be paying off already for Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys

With the Gophers only a few days away from kicking off their 2016 season, Minnesota head coach Tracy Claeys has be thrilled to see his strong 2016 recruiting class already starting to pay off this fall.

After signing 21 scholarship players back in February, Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys could have over half of them playing roles for Minnesota this fall. This should come as no surprise as Claeys' 2016 class was Minnesota's highest rated according to Scout.com since Claeys has been at Minnesota. 

Let's take a look at some of these players going position by position. 

1) RB Kobe McCrary

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It was assumed that Kobe McCrary was going to have some kind of a role coming into the 2016 season, but with Shannon Brooks likely out for a game or two to start the season, McCrary is going to have his chance to make a mark. The Butler community college product lead the nation is rushing touchdowns last fall, and is listed number two on the depth chart currently. I anticipate seeing a lot McCrary near the goal line early as he's an efficient goal line back.

2) WR Phillip Howard

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The Robbinsdale Cooper wide receiver has really turned this on in the last two weeks, enough to find himself on the two deeps with other receivers in the training room. 

Here's what offensive coordinator Jay Johnson said about Howard earlier this week. 

"It was kind of interesting, the first more scrimmage situation we had with Phil was the first kind of typical scrimmage with a newcomer you think would be. But the second one, he was getting lined up; he was playing faster. That was really just a big step. I think once we saw that, you know what, this is going to be a guy we're going to have to transition to playing maybe quicker than we thought. He really did a good job from that first one to to the second one from a scrimmage standpoint."

3) WR Tyler Johnson

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The Minneapolis North standout has made the transition from high school quarterback to wide receiver look very natural, and now finds himself in store for playing time at Minnesota this fall. GopherIllustrated has already pegged him as one of freshman to watch this fall, and we project Johnson to have a more productive season than Rashad Still had as a true freshman last fall. 

4) OL Vincent Calhoun

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Calhoun came in for Minnesota's spring ball and earned a starting spot almost immediately, and hasn't looked back since. Minnesota needs what Calhoun brings to the table at right guard as he's physical at the point of attack, and athletic in space when the Gophers use him to pull or get to the second level. It wouldn't be surprising at all to me to see Calhoun on one of the all-Big Ten teams this fall if he's able to stay healthy. 

5) OL Donnell Greene

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Coffeyville's Donnell Greene chose Minnesota over the Missouri Tigers of the SEC earlier this summer, and once Greene arrived for fall camp, he's already listed as the Gophers number two left tackle. Greene has three years to play, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Greene at left tackle for Minnesota starting next season. For 2016 though, Greene provides some depth on the offensive line where the Gophers surely need it. 

6) OL Garrison Wright

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Offensive lineman Garrison Wright is another junior college offensive lineman that the Gophers brought in early for spring ball, and Wright is arguably Minnesota's best left tackle since Mitch Leidner has been quarterback for the Golden Gophers. Wright is very technically sound at left tackle, and has the athleticism to nullify most pass rushers, which will give Leidner time to throw from the blind side. I'm not sure that left tackle is Garrison Wright's long-term position, but for Minnesota, he's going to maybe the most important lineman for the 2016 season. 

6) DE Tai'yon Devers

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Give a lot of credit to true freshman defensive end Tai'yon Devers for putting in the work since spring ball ended, because it appears now that he's worked his way into playing time this fall. Devers came in with a good frame and great burst off the edge, but needed to put some weight after the spring if he wanted to be considered for playing time this fall, and he's put on 20 lbs after a summer in the weight room, and working with Minnesota's nutritional staff. Devers has the speed and bend, to turn the corner on tackles, and here's what Gophers DL coach Jeff Phelps said about Devers earlier this week. 

"He's done a great job of putting on some weight. Coach Klein and his crew in the weight and conditioning deal, and Brittany and her staff on the nutrition side of things, and his commitment. Those three things coming together and helping him out have really put him in a scenario where he can really hang with some of the big guys in the Big Ten. We're excited about that. Of course, a little bit of that is yet to be determined, but that's why we brought him here. He's a very determined young man, comes from a great background. He's ready to get after it, so we're looking forward to seeing how he can continue to progress this year."

7) DT Merrick Jackson

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Junior college defensive tackle Merrick Jackson came in with some hype from Iowa Western community college, a place that's been very good to the Gophers over the years now. Jackson was a JUCO All-American last season, and Minnesota was able to hold off Baylor last minute in December to get him on campus for spring ball. Since then, Jackson has worked his way into a deep defensive line rotation and drew praise from both defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel, and defensive line coach Jeff Phelps last week. Jackson is going to be seeing a lot of snaps for the Gophers at defensive tackle this fall. 

8) LB Kamal Martin

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GopherIllustrated knew that Kamal Martin was a specimen physically early on, as the question was going to be about how quickly he could pick up the linebacker position having never had any experience there. Well, credit to Martin and the Gophers staff for bringing his development along quickly, and the Gophers staff has put his name on the two deeps. Here's what Jay Sawvel said about Martin earlier this week.

"I think so, the fact that the guy's transitioned from being a high school quarterback and part-time safety to being an outside linebacker. He's going to be a lot better. Once you see from him, probably week one, he'll be better, week two, he'll be better by the time we get to the third game. Sometimes you got to look at it like, if you invest in this stock, there's a big return. Sometimes, initially, you got to put a lot of outlay into that stock. He's shown a lot of things. There's a tremendous amount of athletic ability there. So we're very excited about where he's at. It's been a surprise because of the transition. He hasn't done this all his life; it's new for him."

9) LB Carter Coughlin

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You look at this list of twelve recruits from the 2016 who I anticipate playing for Minnesota this season, and Carter Coughlin is the one with the least defined role right now after coming in as the highest rated. The largest reason for that is because he's missed time with an injury, but should be back on the field here soon. Once Coughlin is back to 100% and up to speed, I think he'll be a special teams contributor early on. 

10) CB Coney Durr

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Coney Durr was a recruit that had Gopher fans holding their breath on signing day as Minnesota was able to fend off North Carolina and Virginia Tech for his services, and the Gophers staff is extremely happy he's a Gopher now. Durr missed some time early in camp with an injury, but is back now practicing and on the two deep at cornerback, and competing for immediate playing time. Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel mentioned Durr's name as one that could be potentially starting a nickle corner for Minnesota, so I'd say Durr's abilities have lived up to the hype here early on. 

11) Kiondre Thomas

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Kiondre Thomas had already drawn some comparisons to former Gopher, and now Kansas City Chief Eric Murray, and that's been evident early on with his play, even though Thomas now wears Murray's old number. Thomas' tenacity and determination to bring it play after play have made him a candidate to play a role in the secondary this fall, plus Thomas has elite closing speed to go with a six-foot frame.

12) Antoine Winfield Jr. 

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Last, but certainly not least is safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who has adapted well to the safety position at Minnesota. Winfield wears the same number as 100 tackle performer from last year in Antonio Johnson, and I believe one of the best compliments you could give Winfield at this stage, is his play is very reminiscent to the one-time Gopher. Sawvel has mentioned Winfield competing for playing time at safety and at nickle, and how fun would it be to see Winfield playing the same position his father held for so many years with the Vikings. 

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