Antoine Winfield Jr. was determined to play one final game with his closest friends at the Outback Bowl, but now his Gophers career has come to an end.
The safety, a unanimous All-America selection this season, will declare for the NFL draft, he announced Wednesday on Instagram.
Winfield was a fourth-year sophomore, on track to graduate this spring with most of his 2016 recruiting class. But he forgoes two remaining seasons of eligibility after season-ending injuries in 2017 and 2018.
Winfield led the Gophers with 88 tackles and seven interceptions this season. He follows in the footsteps of his father, Antoine Winfield Sr., who played 14 NFL seasons, including nine with the Vikings.
“I dreamed of playing in the league ever since I can remember,” Winfield wrote on Instagram. “I looked up to my dad and watched what he did and all he accomplished. Seeing what he was able to do empowers me to say: It’s my time now.”
Including Winfield, the Gophers will lose eight defensive players, seven of them starters, for next season. Tyler Nubin, who just finished his true freshman season, likely will take Winfield’s place at safety alongside rising junior Jordan Howden.
The Gophers will miss Winfield, though, a player who can seemingly do it all, from interceptions to sacks to coverage to pass rushing.
“Of course, you always want a young man like that to play for you again, but is that the best thing for him moving forward?” Coach P.J. Fleck said in late December. “Because at this point in his career, what he’s done for the University of Minnesota, what the family’s done for the University of Minnesota, he deserves to be able to pick what’s best for him.”
Winfield said before the Outback Bowl he would make a decision about his future after playing in that New Year’s Day game with all but one of the graduating seniors. Fleck had anticipated this choice for months, even saying during the season he was still recruiting Winfield to stay.
Fleck said he spoke to Winfield almost every day about the subject, and if draft projections had Winfield as a first- or second-rounder, he would encourage Winfield to declare. Winfield right now is projected to go in the second round.
“It’s really a player and a family decision,” Fleck said before the Outback Bowl. “All we’re here to do is give them the education on both sides.”
In his social media post, Winfield thanked the coaching staff and Fleck specifically for being a mentor. He also called out his roommates, defensive end Carter Coughlin, linebackers Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin, and receiver Clay Geary. He credited them with keeping him with the Gophers after his freshman 2016 season, when he faced and was eventually cleared of a one-year suspension in connection to a team sexual assault allegation.
Coughlin, Barber and Martin are all graduating, with Coughlin and Martin likely draft picks as well. Winfield said enjoying one last game with them in the Outback Bowl was why he didn’t waver at all about risking injury ahead of the draft. With only Martin skipping the game because of an injury, the Gophers beat Auburn 31-24 and finished the year 11-2.
“It’s just crazy to see how far we’ve come and where we’ve come from,” Winfield said. “And just playing in this final game is going to be an amazing experience. Just one last time with all the seniors.”