Just when it looked like the 87-degree heat zapped their energy last Saturday, the Gophers secondary got a jolt from Antoine Winfield Jr. to finish the afternoon football practice strong.
Winfield lunged to deflect passes. He chased ball carriers. His shoulder pads made a popping sound with contact each time he delivered what would be a menacing hit if this weren’t a non-tackling drill.
When he wasn’t flying around the TCF Bank Stadium field, Winfield pumped up teammates with high-fives and chest bumps. After suffering a season-ending injury each of the past two years, the talented 5-10, 205-pound redshirt sophomore safety is healthy and eager to show he’s still among the Big Ten’s best defensive backs.
“I’m already excited to get back on the field,” said Winfield, whose reps were limited during spring practice. “Being out, it just gives you a different perspective. I’m just super excited to get back out there.”
In 2017, Winfield received a medical hardship waiver after playing only four games because of a lingering hamstring injury. The NCAA also granted him another medical waiver and sixth year of eligibility in 2018 after Winfield was limited to four games because of a torn ligament in his left foot.
Winfield had a much stronger mental approach toward his second recovery. Talks with his father, former Vikings standout cornerback Antoine Winfield Sr., also helped him feel much more comfortable during the process.
“It wasn’t as hard as going through it the first time,” Winfield Jr. said. “I already knew what it was like. I already knew I had to stay grounded and just keep telling myself I was going to come back better than I was before.”
It only took two games last season for Winfield to prove he was back to his old self. He scored a touchdown on a 76-yard punt return vs. New Mexico State — the first punt return of his college career — and sealed the victory vs. Fresno State on a late, backward-lunging, end-zone interception.
During his freshman year in 2016, Winfield recorded 52 tackles — with his most memorable play arguably an 82-yard interception return for a TD at Maryland.
Gophers linebacker Carter Coughlin had encouraged the U to recruit Winfield, who ran the 40-yard dash in less than 4.3 seconds in high school but wasn’t heavily recruited by national college powers. Coughlin was Winfield’s teammate at Eden Prairie as a freshman before Winfield’s family moved to Texas.
Three years ago, Winfield gave the Gophers a full-season taste of what he could do, helping solidify the defense for a 9-4 team. Now his veteran presence has the potential to be a major defensive boost.
“If he has a healthy season, he’s going to be a terror in the Big Ten, that’s for sure,” Coughlin said. “All of his injuries are completely healed. He’s 100%. It’s one of those things, those were just situations that he couldn’t control. But he’s healthy now, so nothing’s going to hold him back.”
The U’s secondary is thin on experience. Sophomore Jordan Howden and redshirt junior Calvin Swenson, both former walk-ons, are battling for the other safety spot.
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck presented a challenge to Winfield in his office before fall camp. Beyond staying healthy, the next step for Winfield is to embrace a leadership role.
“He was really excited for camp, especially after the last two years chomping at the bit to get back in there,” Fleck said.
“We need someone to take over that secondary. It’s hard to do that when you were hurt. He knew that. But I can’t wait for him to come out of his shell even more and lead the secondary. I know he can do that. We know what he can do physically.”
Winfield’s leadership was evident in practice last weekend. And he’s not just setting an example for his teammates. His younger brother, Austin, is also a freshman defensive back on the team.
“I’m the oldest guy,” Winfield said. “I’m the most mature guy here, so I’m making sure everybody else is good and everybody else is comfortable.”