Zack Annexstad arrived on the University of Minnesota campus in January, young enough to still be in high school but bold enough to dream big.
“I plan on going there and competing in the spring,” Annexstad said in December. “I’m going there with the mind-set that I’m trying to be the best quarterback who ever came through Minnesota.”
On Monday, Annexstad took the first big step toward fulfilling those lofty dreams, when Gophers coach P.J. Fleck named him the starting quarterback for the Aug. 30 season opener against New Mexico State. Annexstad, a Norseland, Minn., native recruited out of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., as a preferred walk-on rather than a scholarship player, edged out redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan during a tight battle in training camp.
“Unbelievable competition,” Fleck said Monday. “It’s the hardest decision I’ve had to make as head football coach. Both are tremendous individuals, tremendous leaders and great quarterbacks.”
Though Annexstad is the starter, don’t be surprised if Morgan plays this season, too. No quarterback on the Gophers roster has played in a collegiate game, and Fleck wants to have both gain experience.
“Tanner didn’t do anything wrong,” Fleck added. “This is why [the decision] went all the way as late as it did.”
Fleck pointed to ball security, decision-making and explosive plays as factors in swinging a close race to Annexstad.
“Zack was a little bit ahead in some of those areas,” Fleck said. “When it’s that close, that’s the deciding factor for me. … That does not mean you will not see Tanner Morgan in a game. He possibly could be in at some point. But again, this is not a rotation. This is not going to be a short leash for somebody.”
When he takes his first snap against New Mexico State, it is believed Annexstad will be the second walk-on true freshman quarterback to start a season opener for a Power Five-conference school, joining Baker Mayfield at Texas Tech in 2013. (Mayfield transfered to Oklahoma, where he won the 2017 Heisman Trophy before becoming the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL draft.)
Tim Salem in 1980 was the last true freshman to start a season opener for the Gophers. Coach Joe Salem’s son steered a 38-14 victory over Ohio. Two redshirt freshman QBs started openers since 2000 — Adam Weber in 2007 and Asad Abdul-Khaliq in 2000.
Fleck said his young QB is much more than what the roster says about his year and status.
“Zack Annexstad is a walk-on by paper. He is not a walk-on player,” said Fleck, who had to sweat out the QB’s recruitment as scholarship offers came from Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, among others. “… That kid was never a walk-on in our minds.”
Annexstad, who is expected to receive a scholarship in 2019, attended Mankato West as a freshman and sophomore before transferring to IMG Academy, a sports-intensive boarding school. He accelerated his studies at IMG, so he could enroll early at Minnesota and take part in spring practice. In those drills, Annexstad quickly passed junior college transfer Vic Viramontes for second on the depth chart behind Morgan. Viramontes later left the program, transferring back to Riverside (Calif.) City College to play linebacker.
“When he got here in January, in the beginning he was far behind,” Fleck said of Annexstad. “His mental process in this caught up so quickly, because he was spending so much time on his own. So was Tanner, and Tanner taught him how to do that.”
After solid spring games by both Morgan and Annexstad, the younger quarterback asserted himself in training camp.
“They played at a 400 level during training camp,” Fleck said, adding a warning, “but these are young players who are put in a position that is very difficult.”
Annexstad, who as a freshman is not yet available to the media for interviews per team policy, took the big news calmly, Fleck said.
“He looked at me and he goes, ‘All right.’ I was like, ‘Let me repeat myself,’ ” Fleck said. “He smiled a little bit, and he even told me, ‘Coach, listen. I’ve been on the bottom, I’ve been on the top. I’ve been on the bottom more than I have at the top because I’ve always had to work my way up. … I’m very humbled to have the job.’ ”
Annexstad — whose brother, Brock, is a redshirt freshman receiver for the Gophers and whose father, Scott, was a guard for the Gophers in the early 1980s — quickly has impressed teammates with his leadership.
“Zack’s a great leader; he’s really poised back in the pocket,” sophomore tackle Sam Schlueter said. “For how young he is, he’s going to do a really good job.”
That’s the hope for the Gophers and Fleck.
“It’s an incredible journey,” Fleck said of the QB’s ascension. “If you would have told me that would have happened, I would have been shocked — unless it was Zack Annexstad.”