When Zack Annexstad trotted under center on Thursday night for the Gophers against New Mexico State, he became the second walk-on true freshman in major college football to start a season opener. And it just so happens that the first QB to accomplish that feat had some advice to give.
At the request of Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, reigning Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield made a phone call to Annexstad on the eve of the game. Mayfield, now with the Cleveland Browns after being selected No. 1 overall in last spring’s NFL draft, started as a true freshman walk-on for Texas Tech against Southern Methodist in 2013. Mayfield transferred to Oklahoma after that freshman season.
“He called and talked to Zack for about 15 to 20 minutes,’’ Fleck said Monday. “It was good for Zack to hear from him because people had mentioned him. Any time you can get advice from a guy who has been through what you’ve been through, it’s good.’’
Annexstad, a Norseland, Minn., native who played as a high school junior and senior at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., after transferring from Mankato West, had a successful debut for the Gophers in their 48-10 victory. He completed 16 of 33 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns and was especially effective the second quarter, when he went 6-for-7 for 132 yards and a TD as the Gophers turned a 10-7 deficit into a 35-10 lead.
Annexstad was calm and collected when he got the call from Mayfield, according to Fleck:
“His exact words: ‘That was cool.’ And then he walked away. That’s Zack. … That’s what makes Zack really special. He appreciates those things.’’
Fleck gave a tip of his cap to Mayfield, too.
“It was a good moment for [Annexstad] to start his career,’’ Fleck said. “I’m very appreciative of Baker doing that. It says a lot about Baker Mayfield, too.’’
Big Ten honors Winfield for Week 1
Gophers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. was named Big Ten co-special teams player of the week after he returned a punt 76 yards for a TD against New Mexico State. Winfield shared the award with Michigan defensive back Ambry Thomas, who had a 99-yard kickoff return for a TD in a 24-17 loss at Notre Dame.
Winfield, who missed the final eight games of the 2017 season because of a hamstring injury, broke five tackles on the return. He also made five tackles on defense.
Fleck praised both Winfield and the blocking on the return.
“We always talk about our punt return lasting 6 to 7 seconds — 6.2 seconds is the average on a return,’’ he said. “Well, this was 20.6 seconds. The amount of ‘how’ and the blocks and people giving full effort for 21 seconds was impressive.’’
Fleck suggested Winfield could see action on offense this season. “He’s such a special athlete,’’ he said.
Redshirt freshman running back Mohamed Ibrahim rushed nine times for 101 yards in the opener but suffered an injury to his left leg on his last carry, a 74-yard burst. Fleck said he thinks Ibrahim will be ready for Saturday’s game.
Junior defensive back Chris Williamson didn’t play Thursday because of an injury suffered during training camp. “Hopefully, we’ll see him either this week or next week,’’ Fleck said.
Bulldogs with bite
Fresno State, the Gophers’ opponent on Saturday night at TCF Bank Stadium, routed Idaho 79-13 in its opener. The Bulldogs, 10-4 last year, have Fleck’s attention.
“I think it’s a Big Ten opponent. Absolutely, which is a compliment to them,’’ he said. “They remind me of when we were in the last few years at Western Michigan. We felt like we were that caliber. You can see it all over the field for them. They play with an extreme confidence.’’