Ahead of opener, Gophers’ pass attack starts from scratch
MINNEAPOLIS — The forward pass at Minnesota has been more of a challenge to master than ever in the last several seasons, and this is a program that was never known as a quarterback factory in the first place.
The Gophers last year finished ahead of only eight teams in the FBS in passing yards per game, and five of those behind them used run-heavy option schemes. That made the 2018 season as good of a time as any to start from scratch, not that coach P.J. Fleck had much of a choice.
True freshman Zack Annexstad was tabbed last week as the starter, beating out redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan for the right to lead the huddle on Thursday night in the opener against New Mexico State.
The decision to turn the offense over to a teenager who’s never taken a snap in a college game before wasn’t all that bold, given the scenario. Conor Rhoda (graduated) and Demry Croft (transferred) are gone, after starting six games each in Fleck’s first year.
“We just want to be better as a whole: as an offense, defense, special teams,” said Fleck, who oversaw a 5-7 finish in 2017. “It’s not just put on one guy. Our quarterback is going to be expected to run the offense, and that is what our expectations are of him. It’s not how much do we put, how little do we put? Our offense is going to run the way our offense needs to run.”
Annexstad, who’s one of 60 redshirt or true freshmen on Minnesota’s 113-player roster, is a native of the state who finished his high school career at the IMG Academy in Florida. Research by the Gophers has indicated that the only other true freshman walk-on to start a season opener in major college football history was Baker Mayfield for Texas Tech in 2013. Mayfield, who later transferred to Oklahoma, won the Heisman Trophy and was the first overall pick in the NFL draft this year, was slated to be the backup that season until Michael Brewer was hurt.
Fleck has a team policy of prohibiting freshmen from doing interviews with the media, so Annexstad’s thoughts on his debut will be few and far between. Annexstad, a preferred walk-on who is not yet on scholarship, did speak to ESPN.
“I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, but this is something that I’ve been working for because I picked this culture, I picked this team,” Annexstad said. “I knew the teammates that I would have, and I’m just really excited for it.”
New Mexico State had an unusually early opener, losing 29-7 at home to Wyoming on Saturday. The Aggies are coming off one of the long-lagging program’s most memorable seasons, capped by a victory over Utah State in the Arizona Bowl for a 7-6 finish. That was New Mexico State’s first bowl win in 57 years. The Aggies, though, are the only FBS team starting this season without its leading passer, rusher, receiver and tackler from 2017.
The Aggies returned nine starters on defense, but they allowed 312 rushing yards on 57 attempts to Wyoming. The offense had an even tougher time, with just eight total yards at halftime and one advancement past midfield in the closing minutes of the game.
STRONG FRONT SEVEN
The Gophers have a solid core on defense to build around, with the all-Minnesotan trio of Thomas Barber, Blake Cashman and Kamal Martin manning the three linebacker spots and defensive ends Carter Coughlin and Winston DeLattiboudere returning to their positions, too. There are two new starting defensive tackles, but they’re both fifth-year seniors: Gary Moore and O.J. Smith. Smith, a transfer from Alabama, has already been granted a sixth season of eligibility for 2019. Barber ought to benefit in the middle by the 620-pound tandem occupying blockers in front of him.
“They’ve just really come around,” Barber said.
Fleck listed 18 true freshmen and 12 redshirt freshmen on the depth chart this week on either the first or second team. The starters set to make their college debuts are Annexstad, right guard Blaise Andries, wide receiver Rashod Bateman, defensive back Terrell Smith. Andries redshirted last year.