The quarterback scrambled, bought time and delivered a third-down strike on the winning drive.
The receiver caught five passes for 78 yards, and every grab went for a first down.
The backup running back rushed for 87 yards and had four consecutive tough carries to set up the winning touchdown.
And the cornerback led the team with seven solo tackles, intercepted a pass and held a star receiver in check.
What do those four players have in common? They’re all 18-year-old Gophers true freshmen, and they all played vital roles in last week’s 21-14 victory over Fresno State.
Together, four fresh faces of Gophers football — quarterback Zack Annexstad, receiver Rashod Bateman, running back Bryce Williams and cornerback Terell Smith — are showing that the future can be now.
“It’s not that you are younger at three or four positions and these are insignificant [positions],” coach P.J. Fleck said. “These are incredibly important roles for our football team to have success.”
The Gophers are 2-0 with a 48-10 blowout of New Mexico State and the tense win over a veteran Fresno State team. Mostly because of necessity, Fleck has played 28 freshmen (16 true and 12 redshirt), and that will continue Saturday afternoon, when the Gophers play host to Miami (Ohio) in their final nonconference game. If the Gophers get to their Big Ten opener in Maryland on Sept. 22 at 3-0 as expected, they’ll have their teenagers to thank.
It’s not rare that true freshmen play in college football, but excelling right away is a challenge. Two former Gophers who turned quick starts into long-term success have been impressed.
“I know it’s difficult to learn a little bit when you’re a freshman, but that’s usually not the most difficult part,” said Darrell Thompson, the school’s career rushing leader who now is a radio analyst. “The most difficult part for me when I was a freshman was just the physicality. The game is much more physical in college, and the things I did in high school, they did not work in college.”
Thompson made his debut in the 1986 opener against Bowling Green and rushed for four touchdowns and 205 yards, a yardage record at the time for a first game. “My first game was pretty good,” the former Rochester John Marshall star deadpanned.
Greg Eslinger, a center who started as a true freshman in 2002, recalled his first game, the opener against Southwest Texas State.
“I was extremely nervous but extremely excited, too,” said Eslinger, whose only FBS scholarship offer out of Bismarck (N.D.) was the Gophers. “I call it a dream in fast forward for me. I came in hoping I would see some playing time my junior or senior year. To get thrown in there right away was certainly a shock for me, but I was so excited.”
For Thompson and Eslinger, early success foretold the future. Thompson had three 1,000-yard seasons, was a first-round pick of Green Bay and played five seasons in the NFL. Eslinger earned freshman All-America honors and won the Outland Trophy (nation’s best interior lineman) and Rimington Trophy (best center) as a senior in 2005.
We don’t know yet if this crop of true freshmen will approach those heights, but a two-game glimpse has been positive. Teammates and coaches have been quick to praise this group, who are not allowed to speak to the media, per team rules regarding true freshmen.
When Eslinger started from the get-go, he was doing so at a complex position, in which line calls and adjustments are made. But he says that’s nothing compared with what Annexstad must do.
“To step into a lineup as a true freshman quarterback, you have to an extreme mental keenness about you,” said Eslinger, who lives in Fargo, N.D., and works in medical device sales. “To get up to game speed and more importantly to understand the playbook, your checks, everything that goes on with the quarterback. … What he’s doing as a quarterback vs. what I did as an offensive lineman is two different levels, quite honestly.”
Annexstad, who has completed 32 of 59 passes for 395 yards and two TDs with no interceptions, won the starting job in training camp. When he enrolled in January as a preferred walk-on, he was third on the depth chart. Thompson credits Annexstad’s two years at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. — the Norseland, Minn., native transferred from Mankato West — for speeding his development.
“He’s like a redshirt freshman or a redshirt sophomore. He received coaching there,” Thompson said. “They don’t have the capacity on the high school coaching staffs that an IMG has, which is basically a college prep.”
New options on O
Bateman is a four-star recruit out of Tifton, Ga., whose offers included national runner-up Georgia. He has 10 receptions for 130 yards and has helped open things up for go-to receiver Tyler Johnson.
“He catches the ball — that’s the most important thing,” Thompson said. “He’s got sneaky speed.”
Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca saw the 6-2, 200-pounder improve against Fresno State. “Rashod played faster than he did the week before,” he said, “and there was nothing wrong with the way he played the week before.”
With the season-ending injury to senior Rodney Smith, Williams was thrust into the lead role early last week. He started slowly but improved, moving the Gophers from the Fresno State 28 to the 3 with four consecutive carries on the winning drive.
Running backs frequently make an impact as freshmen because of sheer athletic talent, but Eslinger says there’s more to it.
“That’s a fair statement with a big asterisk, because a running back is so imperative in the passing game and understanding where blitzes are,” he said. “A lot of a drive can be won or lost on a running back’s knowledge where the blitz is coming from.”
Shutting ’em down
Terell Smith has been a standout in the secondary, leading the Gophers with eight tackles and breaking up three passes in the opener, then picking off a pass and helping slow All-Mountain West receiver KeeSean Johnson in the second game. Smith isn’t afraid to be aggressive with press coverage.
“If you could run a 10.3[-second] 100 meters, you would probably press people, too,” Fleck told reporters this week.
When asked about Smith, defensive coordinator Robb Smith quickly smiled and said, “He’s been a very, very productive player for us.”
That can be said about several freshmen, and four true freshmen in particular.
“You look out there at one point, and every one of your playmakers besides Ty Johnson is a freshman, and they’ve never been in a situation like that before and you don’t know how they’re going to react,” Fleck said. “It’s kind of like a ride you go on that you’ve never been on before. You’re on it, and there’s all the twists and turns and the excitement level to it. Also, that little bit of fear, too.’’