Year 2 of the P.J. Fleck era kicks off Thursday against New Mexico State at TCF Bank Stadium. Despite several new faces in the starting lineup, expectations for the Gophers, mostly due to Fleck’s attention-grabbing antics, are once again high.
The Gophers enter the season with numerous question marks, most notably at quarterback.
True freshman Zack Annexstad won the starting job, just another example of Fleck going against the grain in attempting to develop a consistent winner at Minnesota. Annexstad, a three-star recruit out of IMG Academy in Florida, is a pro-style quarterback who managed to beat out redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan for the job.
The 6-foot-3, 199-pounder is believed to be the only true freshman walk-on to start an opener for a Power 5 school since Baker Mayfield started for Texas Tech in 2013.
Unlike the up-and-down quarterback battles last season, Annexstad might bring some stability despite his youth. His strong arm, size and background have all the makings of a potential four-year starter. Plus, the Gophers have a soft schedule, with their first games at home.
“Listen, there is a process to this whole thing,” Fleck said. “I hear everybody. I get everybody’s e-mails. I understand 51 years of not winning a championship. I get all of that. But that process and that position is starting to take shape.
“Why do I say it’s starting? Because there will always be competition. We’re bringing in a few quarterbacks next year and there’s going to be more competition. … My job is to out-recruit everybody on this football team every year. Our players’ job is to keep their job.”
The good news, for the Gophers, is New Mexico State represents a good starting point for their new quarterback.
The Gophers enter as 18.5-point favorites, as the Aggies struggled in their opener in dropping a 29-7 decision to Wyoming. Quarterback Matt Romero passed for 140 yards and one touchdown, as the Aggies sorely missed running back Larry Rose III and wide receiver Jaleel Scott. New Mexico State struggled moving the ball and committed 12 penalties.
–LB Thomas Barber is the next in line from his family to make a mark at Minnesota. The junior is coming off a strong season and his experience is a valuable tool for a young defense. Barber tallied a team-high 115 tackles and forced three fumbles in his breakout sophomore season.
–RB Rodney Smith is a slated for a bigger role on offense, especially with a true freshman at quarterback. Smith rushed for 977 yards last season, but those numbers are a significant drop since running for 1,158 yards and 16 touchdowns in his sophomore season. Which Smith will show up this season?
–S Antoine Winfield Jr. is back on the team after being limited to four games last season due to a hamstring injury. Considered one of the best tacklers on the team, Winfield’s presence in the secondary without many returning players can’t be understated.