Zack Annexstad wasn’t an afterthought when he arrived on campus in January, but few outside the Gophers football program — perhaps inside it, either — predicted that he would be the starting quarterback in the season opener.
True freshmen don’t typically win quarterback competitions. A true freshman walk-on starting at quarterback for a Power Five school is like snow falling in the Caribbean. Baker Mayfield is believed to be the only true freshman walk-on to start an opener for a Power Five school (Texas Tech in 2013). It usually only happens if something has gone terribly wrong.
The circumstances that created an immediate opening for a new Gophers starter weren’t ideal. But Annexstad won the job because he is the best option, and now all anyone can do is hope that he ends a vicious cycle of quarterback torment for the program and its fan base.
But hey, no pressure, kid.
Truth is, nobody knows how this will go — including coach P.J. Fleck.
Annexstad will have some good moments and some bad moments. Youthful mistakes are inevitable for freshman QBs because everything is new to them and games feel like they are moving at warp speed.
One thing seems certain: The passing game won’t be worse than last season. An inchworm could clear that bar.
Annexstad clearly has some talent and athletic moxie. And he checks a box with his size (6-3, 215 pounds). But can he develop into a better-than-average Big Ten quarterback? To be determined.
Fleck’s ability to elevate his program to the level he envisions will require more than pedestrian quarterback play. Other Gophers coaches before him tried but failed to develop a legitimate star at that position.
Best-case scenario: Annexstad (or his backup, Tanner Morgan) shows promise, maintains a tight grip on the job and becomes a veteran who produces at an all-conference level.
Worst case: Fleck feels compelled to hit reset at that position again next season with one of his incoming freshmen, thus ensuring another season of growing pains. That scenario would lead Fleck into Year 4 without reaping any benefits of a veteran quarterback. It’s difficult to build a program with a revolving door at quarterback.
When new options at QB do arrive, it’s safe to assume Fleck won’t be pulling them in from the junior college ranks again, after his whiff on Vic Viramontes this offseason. But recruiting will remain the crucial ground floor of Fleck’s quarterback blueprint.
“Listen, there is a process to this whole thing,” he 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 outrecruit everybody on this football team every year. Our players’ job is to keep their job. That’s how you elevate the program as you continue to go.”
Annexstad brings a blank canvas to Thursday’s opener. With that comes both uneasiness and optimism.
One positive is that he will be surrounded by more legitimate talent on the line and in the receiving corps than the Gophers trotted out last season. Glaring personnel deficiencies all over the offense compounded their shortcomings at quarterback in Fleck’s first season. They weren’t even in the same universe for how a Big Ten offense should look the final few games.
Fleck vowed that he won’t have a quick hook if Annexstad encounters some tough times, which is the right approach. Rotating quarterbacks accomplishes nothing, except to add extra pressure on each one. Young quarterbacks need reassurance to breed confidence, not the fear that a bad interception might mean banishment to the bench.
Will Annexstad throw a costly interception at some point? Pretty likely.
Will he also make throws that create excitement about his potential and future? Also likely.
The Gophers are a long way from having an established quarterback, whether that proves to be Annexstad or someone else. Patience is necessary.
Starting over can bring any outcome. It’s pure guesswork trying to predict what will come next.