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Gophers net pair of best friends, a quarterback-running back combo from Michigan

Darius Taylor and Drew Viotta will be joining the team for 2023.

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck runs with his team during a practice drill in Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex in Minneapolis on March 23. Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press
Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck runs with his team during a practice drill in Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex in Minneapolis on March 23. Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press
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Drew Viotto and his family moved from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, south across the border into Michigan, settling in suburban Detroit before his eighth-grade school year. He soon met Darius Taylor.

The middle school kids quickly bonded and became best friends at Walled Lake Western High School. They play video games, go fishing and have dinner with each other’s family. They also have impromptu wrestling matches — which Taylor wins because, while smaller, he’s on the varsity wrestling team and Viotto is more of a basketball player.

They also play football — at a high level.

Taylor, an electric running back who has athleticism to play all over the field, committed to the Gophers’ 2023 recruiting class in April. Viotto, a big-armed and accurate quarterback, pledged to the U on Friday.

They dreamed about being like Payton Thorne and Jayden Reed, who together went from Naperville, Ill., to star at Michigan State last season. Viotto and Taylor will get that chance at Minnesota starting in two seasons.

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“It really means everything,” Taylor told the Pioneer Press about going to the U with Viotto. “We’ve had a real strong bond. We hang out every day, so that’s my guy.”

Taylor, who is listed at 5 feet 11 and 187 pounds, was more highly recruited than Viotto, but it built up as Taylor’s junior season unfolded. At the start, it was FCS-level Youngstown State and Division II Ferris State, but they didn’t stay in touch. As the on-field highlights stacked up, so did the offers from Mid-American Conference schools. Then came Syracuse and more from Power Five conferences — Missouri, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

“Darius is just an all-around athlete,” said Kory Cioroch, Walled Lake Western’s head football coach. “We think he’s one of the best football players in the state of Michigan. He led our team in rushing, receiving, interceptions on defense, returning yards. He’s just a do-it-all kid.”

Taylor describes his play as “elusive, fast and smart.”

Before picking Minnesota after an unofficial visit in April, he received strong interest from Michigan State and fellow Big Ten West schools Wisconsin, Iowa and Purdue.

After Taylor committed to Minnesota, he tried to put a word in with Gophers coaches on Viotto’s behalf. With tight ends coach Greg Harbaugh as that state’s primary recruiter, they were evaluating him. Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca then attended a college showcase at Walled Lake in May to watch Viotto throw again. This time, it came in the rain.

“Coach Ciarrocca was impressed with my leadership and he liked my character to throw the ball in the rain,” Viotto said. “That was pretty, pretty cool.”

Before the family moved south about four years ago, Viotto and his father would drive to Michigan a few times a month to work out with Donovan Dooley, who runs Quarterback University. Viotto told Dooley his dream of playing college football, and Dooley suggested a move to Michigan.

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Viotto’s father obtained a visa and they packed their bags. But after playing on junior high and junior varsity teams, Viotto spent his sophomore season behind starter Zach Trainor, who earned a scholarship to Eastern Illinois.

“It’s sort of a valiant thing on his behalf because nowadays everybody leaves for another opportunity,” Cioroch said.

Viotto stayed and went on to complete nearly 70 percent of his passes for almost 2,000 yards and 22 touchdowns as a junior. During that junior season last fall, a writer nicknamed Viotto, who is 6-foot-4 and 220 pounds, the “Canadian Cannon.”

“I just call him Drew,” Cioroch said. “But he is from Canada, and he has a cannon.”

Viotto said some teammates call him by his new-found nickname, including guys on his 7-on-7 squad. Taylor laughed at the mention of the nickname but doesn’t use it.

During his junior season, MAC schools and Maryland offered Viotto, and he committed to Eastern Michigan in February.

“I just felt like at the time, that was a smart thing to do with the (NCAA) transfer portal going crazy and stuff and the whole landscape was changing of college football,” Viotto said. “I just felt like I needed to commit to know that I had something.”

Then Minnesota jumped in over the past two weeks. After video calls with Ciarrocca and head coach P.J. Fleck on Wednesday, he committed that day, waiting to announce it Friday morning.

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As Minnesota grew more serious about Viotto, Cioroch said he appreciate the straight talk from Ciarrocca.

“It’s just his honesty and his bluntness about the recruiting process and what they were looking for,” Cioroch said. “There was no fluff. And I wish a lot more people would recruit like he does. Because we deal with recruiters every day, and we might not get the true honest take that I think our kids deserve.”

Cioroch has had former players move on to play college football across the Midwest, including at Iowa and Wisconsin, and he grew up a Michigan fan.

“It’s a really cool situation,” Ciroch said about Viotto and Taylor being close friends and now headed to the same college. “Now I got two kids going from the same class to Minnesota, and I think I’m gonna row the boat.”

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This story was written by one of our partner news agencies. Forum Communications Company uses content from agencies such as Reuters, Kaiser Health News, Tribune News Service and others to provide a wider range of news to our readers. Learn more about the news services FCC uses here.

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