On the surface, the figures look daunting.
Zero: Collegiate passes thrown by the Gophers starting quarterback entering the 2018 season.
Zero: Collegiate hits absorbed by that QB.
And zero: Collegiate snaps taken by that QB.
Come Aug. 30, the Gophers will open their season with an unknown situation at quarterback. Either Tanner Morgan, a redshirt freshman, or Zack Annexstad, a walk-on true freshman, will begin under center against New Mexico State. It’s not an optimal situation for any team — who wouldn’t want a senior like Penn State’s Trace McSorley? — but it’s the situation the Gophers have and one that they will have to make work.
For coach P.J. Fleck, it’s a challenge but one he relishes because of the type of QBs he has in Morgan and Annexstad, who both likely will play this season.
“They don’t feel like freshmen,’’ Fleck said. “When I stand back there, I don’t sense any freshman nerves, anxiety. They make mistakes, but they’re not freshman mistakes. They’re making 400-level mistakes.’’
Fleck hasn’t decided on a starter, saying “they’re neck and neck’’ in the competition.
Minnesota is not alone in having no experience at QB. Nebraska also could have either a redshirt freshman (Tristan Gebbia) or a true freshman (Adrian Martinez) starting. The rest of the Big Ten, however, features potential starters with at least four games of experience and six with 20 or more games played.
Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca had to think for a while when asked if he’s ever been in a situation in which his top two QBs had no game experience. “No,’’ he said, “but I’ve had a situation [at Rutgers] where a true freshman started for us.’’ That QB was Tom Savage, who is now with the New Orleans Saints as a backup.
Ciarrocca’s point: Just because they’re freshmen doesn’t mean they can’t play.
“The thing I’ve been impressed most about is they’ve been able to handle it,’’ he said of Morgan and Annexstad. “Has it been perfect? No. But usually, if a quarterback melts down, it just looks awful out there. He can’t do anything right. I’ve not seen that yet, and that’s encouraging; that’s exciting.’’
Either Morgan or Annexstad should give Minnesota’s offense a boost because — frankly — there’s nowhere to go but up. Last year, with Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft each starting six games, the Gophers ranked 122nd of 128 teams nationally in passing offense at 126.1 yards per game. In Big Ten play, that figure sank to 110.4. But even that 122nd ranking was a little misleading, because four teams below the Gophers — Army, Navy, Georgia Tech and Air Force — run a triple-option offense and have little use for the forward pass.
Ciarrocca says there’s “no comparison’’ in the quality of playmakers the Gophers have this year vs. last year. It’s clear that statement covers his two quarterbacks.
“They’re very selfless players, and that is contagious with everybody else,’’ Fleck added. “Are they the greatest leaders on this football team? No, they’re not there yet. But they’re learning how to become that.’’
How they got here
When Fleck took over as Gophers coach in early January 2017, he didn’t inherit a stocked cupboard at quarterback. Rhoda, a fifth-year senior who had thrown 17 passes in a combined five games, wasn’t retained by former coach Tracy Claeys, and Fleck had to ask him to come back. Croft, a redshirt sophomore who played in three games in 2015, was Fleck’s other option to start last year.
Fleck named Rhoda and Croft as co-starters, though Rhoda would start the season’s first six games while Croft sat out three because of a suspension for a violation of team rules.
Though the Gophers went 3-0 in the nonconference season, Rhoda’s limitations as a runner in a run-pass option offense were apparent early in Big Ten play, when he rushed 10 times for a combined 8 yards in losses to Maryland, Purdue and Michigan State. In that 30-27 loss to the Spartans, Fleck reinserted Croft, whose three fourth-quarter touchdown passes pulled Minnesota close after it trailed 23-6.
Turns out, that was fool’s gold. Save for his 183-yard, three-TD rushing performance in a 54-21 thrashing of a Nebraska team in give-up mode, Croft was ineffective the rest of the way. After the Michigan State game, he completed only 34.9 percent of his passes (30-for-86) for one TD with six interceptions. He completed only five passes and threw three picks in season-ending losses to Northwestern and Wisconsin.
Croft quickly asked for and was granted his release after the season, and he transferred to FCS level Tennessee State.
Meanwhile, Fleck landed a standout junior college quarterback in Vic Viramontes of Riverside (Calif.) City College. But it was clear quickly that Morgan and Annexstad were better than the flamboyant Californian, who was third in the pecking order during spring practice. Viramontes struggled in the spring game, completing one of three passes for 1 yard and fumbling twice. By early June, he had left school with the intention to transfer back to Riverside to play linebacker.
Both Morgan and Annexstad acquitted themselves well in the spring game, with each leading two-minute drives for TDs and combining to complete better than 60 percent of their passes, for three TDs.
“All I can say is the coaches are going to have a tough decision to make, because both of those guys can let the ball ride and put it in tight spots,’’ Gophers receiver Tyler Johnson said. “They just go play ball.’’
Morgan: ‘Loves the game’
Morgan, a standout at Ryle High School in Union, Ky., originally committed to Western Michigan when Fleck was there but followed the coach to Minnesota. He’s been through two spring practices, so he could have a slight edge over Annexstad.
“He’s probably one of the smartest players I’ve coached,’’ Ryle coach Mike Engler said. “He loves the game of football, and his knowledge shows he’s a student of the game.’’
Engler pointed to a state quarterfinal game in Morgan’s senior year. With Ryle trailing late in the game, Morgan, who wasn’t used often as a runner, made an impact.
“We had a fourth-and-3, and we ran a rollout with the quarterback,’’ Engler said. “Instead of throwing it, he said, ‘I’m going to get the first down,’ and he trucked some kid to get the first down. To this day, that play right there sums up that he’s a winner.’’
Engler expects Morgan to win the job with the Gophers.
“He ended up committing to Western Michigan, but I honestly thought he was bigger than that,’’ the coach said. “Nothing against Western Michigan, but I think Minnesota was the perfect place for him. He’s 6-1, 6-2, and some schools shy away from him because he’s not 6-4. Kentucky never even really looked at him. They missed out, and right now they’re searching for a quarterback.’’
Annexstad: ‘Plays to his strengths’
Annexstad is from Norseland, Minn., near St. Peter, and attended Mankato West before transferring to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. At that highly competitive national boarding school, he began last season as the backup to Artur Sitkowski, who is in the mix to start at Rutgers.
Adam Behrends, IMG’s quarterbacks coach and a former Minnesota State Mankato defensive back, was impressed with how Annexstad handled the disappointment and eventually won the job.
“He was really upset after the first game, and a testament to him is that was about the only moment you saw it get to him,’’ Behrends said. “He came back out the next Monday and you couldn’t even tell. He worked so hard. … He’s a grinder. With his God-given ability, he’s going to max that out.’’
Behrends sees Annexstad constantly working to address weaknesses.
“He doesn’t have a laser-rocket arm by any means, but one thing that he’s really good at is he’s self-aware,’’ Behrends said. “He plays to his strengths instead of trying to be somebody he’s not. … His wheelhouse is his intelligence.’’
That sounds a lot like Morgan, too, which is just fine with the Gophers.
“The intangible things in a quarterback are really important,’’ Ciarrocca said. “… Both guys got their own unique story. But both stories I really liked, and that told me a lot about them as people.’’