First impressions can be tricky, occasionally misleading, but they provide some insight into an unknown. It’s probably safe not to overreact either way.
Oh what the heck, forget caveats for once.
Zack Annexstad’s college football debut went better than anyone could have reasonably expected. Not perfect, not mistake-free and not against a high-caliber opponent, but Annexstad allowed Gophers fans to feel optimistic after watching a first step in what they hope will become a long-term upgrade at quarterback.
Annexstad shook off an early gaffe with a promising performance in guiding the Gophers to a 48-10 rout of New Mexico State at TCF Bank Stadium.
He completed 10 of 16 passes for 162 yards and two touchdowns in the first half and finished with 220 passing yards as the Gophers sprinted away from the overmatched Aggies.
His performance was encouraging because the circumstances of his start were historically rare, meaning nobody really knew how it would unfold.
Annexstad became only the second true freshman walk-on ever to start the season opener for a Power Five team. The other: Baker Mayfield at Texas Tech before he transferred to Oklahoma, where he won the Heisman Trophy last season.
Per the team’s media policy, Annexstad was not made available for an interview after the game because he is a true freshman.
His first quarter was eventful. First completion. First touchdown pass. First turnover.
The touchdown pass went to Tyler Johnson on a 7-yard slant.
His first turnover was a blooper. Lined up in the shotgun, Annexstad appeared to take his eyes off the snap and the ball flew through his hands, resulting in a fumble deep in Gophers territory that set up a New Mexico State touchdown.
His response showed maturity. Or something.
Annexstad ran to the sideline, put his arm on coach P.J. Fleck’s shoulder and said, “Hey, we’re going to be all right.”
Fleck did a double-take.
“I looked at him and said, ‘We’re going to be all right, huh?’ ” Fleck said. “Usually it’s me telling them, ‘Hey, you’re going to be OK.’ That’s his personality. It’s different. And I like it.”
Annexstad didn’t let his mistake sabotage his entire night. He didn’t crawl into a shell. He led touchdown drives of 75, 79 and 84 yards in the second quarter.
Let’s pause to note the obvious: New Mexico State is a bad team. Much tougher tests await, starting next week against Fresno State. But there were signs from Annexstad’s performance that were refreshing based on some of the quarterback struggles this program has witnessed in recent memory.
Annexstad hit receivers on target and in stride so they could do something after the catch. His passes weren’t at his receivers’ ankles or over their heads. He didn’t force receivers to twist and turn like contortionists on what should be routine catches.
Fleck saw room for improvement on Annexstad’s deep-ball accuracy, but he avoided unnecessary risks for the most part.
The game plan featured screens and slants early, which allowed Annexstad to get comfortable, but the coaching staff didn’t restrict him. Annexstad took a number of deep shots as the game progressed.
The performance was something to build on and a far cry from 2017. To put it in the nicest possible way, the passing game last season was a debacle. The Gophers ranked No. 122 nationally out of 130 FBS teams at 126.1 yards per game, only slightly more effective than teams that run a triple-option offense and barely acknowledge the forward pass.
Improvement in that area isn’t just Annexstad’s responsibility. The Gophers have more playmakers at receiver now and shouldn’t be forced to depend solely on Johnson, who was on an island by himself last season.
Freshmen Rashod Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas showed flashes of their talent. They will encounter growing pains just like every other freshman, and they’ll have to show they can produce against stronger competition, but their natural talent is unmistakable.
Annexstad delivered passes that allowed them to shine. He did a lot of positive things in his debut. The Gophers couldn’t have asked for a better first step.