The Gophers lost their starting safety, unanimous All-America selection Antoine Winfield Jr., to the NFL draft, but coach P.J. Fleck thinks that’s a positive.

“Any time players are leaving early with your program, I think that’s a benefit,” Fleck said Thursday. “… We’re going to have to get used to this with a lot of the players that we have, and I think that shows the health of the program that you’re able to develop pro players really quickly and that the NFL wants them.”

Fleck added he never expected to keep the fourth-year sophomore, with his 88 tackles and seven interceptions, for his remaining two years of eligibility. He hoped for one more, but he understood why the projected second-round pick would leave.

VideoVideo (01:03): Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck spoke Thursday at Athletes Village

“He looked at it like, what else could I accomplish here?” Fleck said. “… It was time for him to be able to move on, and we support him.”

Annexstad update

Fleck said injured quarterback Zack Annexstad, the 2018 starter who hurt his foot in training camp, is “probably a week away from actually being 100 percent” healthy. With Tanner Morgan, also a rising junior, establishing himself as the starter, Annexstad will likely have to settle into the backup role.

“The way that it is these days, it’s almost like people don’t want to just be the backup anymore,” Fleck said. “… My message to our quarterbacks is: Stay in the moment. Compete. Do everything you can to be the No. 1 quarterback, and we’re going to have competition at every position.”

Hiring on the horizon

Fleck said he hopes to fill the vacant defensive line coach position by the end of the American Football Coaches Association convention Jan. 12-14. That position has seen much turnover the past several seasons, but Fleck said he’s more concerned about finding a good coach than one who will stay for more than a year.