Through bad injuries, Anyanwu stayed positive, is ready to contribute

Despite missing nearly all of his first two seasons with knee and arm injuries, Minnesota tight end Duke Anyanwu said "just keeping a positive mentality" has helped him return healthy and eager to play.

Brad Rempel/Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Duke Anyanwu went through quite a bit of adversity before he ever stepped foot on a college football field.

As a former standout quarterback at Blaine (Minn.) High School, Anyanwu was recruited to the University of Minnesota as an "athlete," meaning the team wasn’t sure which position he’d play. After adding about 30 pounds, he eventually settled in as a tight end.

But during his first year with the Gophers, Anyanwu tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his knee in a captain’s practice and redshirted during the 2012 season. The following spring, he was bitten by the injury bug again when he broke his forearm.

"I had a string of bad luck," said Anyanwu, now a redshirt sophomore. "Just keeping a positive mentality . . . it was tough, but you’ve always got to stay positive."

Anyanwu eventually made his college debut last year with Minnesota but didn’t record a stat as a tight end. In fact, his only game of the 2013 season came on special teams against Western Illinois.

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His time on the field last year was brief, but it was a testament to his hard work after overcoming multiple injuries and a position change.

"He’s had some tough luck, and he’s hung right in there," said Gophers head coach Jerry Kill. "He’s got a tremendous attitude."

Anyanwu has taken advantage of an opportunity in front of him this spring. With fellow tight end Maxx Williams sidelined during spring practices with a knee injury, Anyanwu has stepped up and flashed some playmaking ability at tight end. He’ll have a chance this Saturday during Minnesota’s spring game to show that he can be a key contributor among a deep tight end group.

Anyanwu is one of several Gophers players who are now catching passes instead of throwing them. Williams also played quarterback at Waconia (Minn.) High School, as did wide receivers KJ Maye and Donovahn Jones.

While Anyanwu insists he doesn’t really miss playing quarterback — he noted how different the position is from high school to college — he still uses his previous experience under center to help understand nuances of the tight end position from a quarterback’s perspective.

"Sometimes to a fault, though," he said. "When you’re a quarterback, you’re thinking a lot and you’re really working on not making a mistake and kind of just making sure everything’s all right and in your control. When I play tight end, I really can’t afford to do that too much because you’ve kind of just got to play football and be physical."

Redshirt sophomore quarterback Mitch Leidner has noticed Anyanwu’s improvements this spring and believes his previous time as a quarterback in high school has helped with his transition.

"Being a quarterback, there are some plays throughout spring ball where he’s been on the same page as us just because he understands it a little bit like a quarterback does and can find openings," Leidner said. "With Maxx being injured now and seeing (Anyanwu) step up, it’s really been good for this offense because now we’re going to be able to have that much different personnels and be able to throw at you."

Anyanwu came to Minnesota weighing around 210 pounds, too undersized for any of the positions — linebacker, H-back, tight end — for which the Gophers were considering him. So H-backs/tight ends coach Rob Reeves told Anyanwu to let things unfold when he got to campus in terms of his body weight, and Minnesota would then find a good fit for him.

Now weighing in at 6-foot-4, 241 pounds, Anyanwu has grown into his new position.

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"It’s a little nerve-wracking. Coming in here, I was kind of like, ‘OK, do I gain weight? Do I lose weight? What will I do? Am I playing receiver? Tight end? What am I doing?’" Anyanwu said. "So coach Reeves then told me, ‘You know what, just let your body do what it needs to do.’ Because I was still young. I was 17 years old coming out of high school, and I’m only 19 now. He just told me to let my body take its course. Whatever my body does, they’ll kind of work with that. I kind of naturally fit into an H-back."

When Williams returns from his knee injury, he’ll likely be Minnesota’s top tight end target after catching 25 passes for a team-high 417 yards as a redshirt freshman last year. Anyanwu said he’s learned a lot from Williams, even though the two are the same age.

The Gophers have plenty of depth at tight end aside from those two players. Drew Goodger and Lincoln Plsek have also gained experience over the last few years and enter their senior and junior seasons, respectively.

Now Anyanwu has a chance to be a part of that tight end group and help Minnesota’s passing game take a step forward.

"Every day’s an opportunity to compete," Anyanwu said. "With Maxx being down with his knee injury, it’s a huge opportunity for me to be able to show what I can do on the field.

"I just take it in stride and have fun out there and play football. At the end of the day, let the play take care of itself."

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