Antoine Winfield Jr. is quite the popular guy these days. On social media, Winfield starred in one of the top highlight clips of college football’s opening week. In the Big Ten office, Winfield grabbed the attention of the weekly award presenters, who named him the league’s co-special teams player of the week.
And in the Gophers football complex, Winfield has been the subject of a good-natured tug-of-war among coaches.
All of this because of his jaw-dropping 76-yard punt return for a touchdown in the Gophers’ season-opening 48-10 victory over New Mexico State. The sophomore defensive back broke five tackles on the play — and broke the spirit of the Aggies — with a combination of power, agility and a sharp stiff-arm to find pay dirt on a play that took almost 21 seconds.
“That’s the most spectacular punt return I’ve ever seen live,” said Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, a 28-year collegiate coaching veteran.
“It’s still amazing to see,” Winfield said with a big smile on Wednesday, as the Gophers prepared for Saturday night’s game against Fresno State. “Still on Cloud Nine. It’s a great feeling.”
Finally, back on the field
For Winfield, that signature moment was a long time coming and an emotional relief. He was playing for the first time since the fourth game of the 2017 season, when he injured his left hamstring. A lengthy rehabilitation period followed — Winfield originally hurt the hamstring during training camp last year, so the Gophers exercised caution — and he missed the rest of the season.
“I was close [to returning last year], but it was still iffy,” said Winfield, who received a medical redshirt that makes him a third-year sophomore. “It wasn’t all the way 100 percent. I’m glad I took my time on it.”
Though he was itching to get back on the field, Winfield didn’t let frustration set in.
“It’s football. You’re going to have injuries,” he said. “It’s just a part of the game. I didn’t really think about it like that. I was just trying to get back on the field as soon as possible.”
That came during training camp, when Winfield injected his talent and upbeat personality into the Gophers defense.
“He just has the chillest, coolest vibe ever,” said Gophers junior rush end Carter Coughlin, one of Winfield’s roommates. “He has fun doing anything.”
Defense, special teams and offense?
Several members of the Gophers coaching staff want to get in on that fun, too.
The 5-10, 205-pounder, whose father, Antoine Sr., was an All-Pro cornerback for the Vikings, is a do-it-all force in the secondary. Pro Football Focus named him to its freshman All-America team in 2016 after he started nine games, made 52 tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown. He was on his way to a strong season last year, with 20 tackles and a blocked field goal in 13 quarters, and had five tackles in this year’s opener.
“Oh, yeah. He’s their difference-maker,” Fresno State offensive coordinator Kalen DeBoer said with a shudder of respect.
Wherever the opponent has the football, Gophers defensive coordinator Robb Smith wants Winfield to be there.
“We have to find ways to get him where we believe the point of attack is going to be,” Smith said. “There’s different ways to do that, but at the end of the day, we want him around the football.”
So does Ciarrocca, who envisions Winfield creating nightmares for opposing defenses.
“It’s something that we’re thinking about, or I should say, something I’m dreaming about,” the offensive coordinator said. “He’s really a dynamic young man. He’d be a perfect slot [receiver] in our system. But at the same time, we know how important he is to the defense and what an unbelievable player that he is.”
Still, Winfield’s punt return had Ciarrocca making his case.
“It was like, ‘I told you he’d be a great player on offense.’ Honestly, it didn’t surprise me,” Ciarrocca said. “He is capable of that type of stuff.”
And to whom was that conversation targeted?
“Whoever was on the headset,” Ciarrocca said, chuckling.
That would be P.J. Fleck, and the Gophers coach is considering an offensive role for Winfield, who admits he hasn’t played offense “since pee-wee football.”
“It’s a real thing. I just don’t know when we will get to that,” Fleck said. “It’s just how the season develops. … I just think he’s such a special athlete.”
By giving Winfield punt return duties — and using receiver Seth Green as a wildcat quarterback — Fleck has shown creativity in developing playmakers.
“Everybody sits there and says you don’t put [Winfield] at punt returner because you don’t want [injuries] to happen,” Fleck said. “You don’t play football by just playing it safe. You want to give your athletes the best opportunity for them to do what they do well.”
If, or when, Winfield on offense becomes a reality, Fleck is confident the moment won’t be too big for a player with a high football IQ.
“He’s just a student of the game. You watch him in meetings, his eyes never come off the speaker,” Fleck said. “… He’s constantly taking notes. He’s constantly listening.”
Winfield says sign him up for an offensive role.
“I’m just out there playing football and having fun,” he said. “Any way I can get on the field and help the team win, I’m willing to do it.’’