As third options go, a college football team could do a lot worse than having Chris Autman-Bell in its quiver.
The Gophers junior wide receiver spent the past two seasons emerging from the substantial shadows cast by Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, collecting 28 receptions each year and contributing five touchdown catches in 2019.
With Johnson heading to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Autman-Bell would move up a notch behind Bateman, the reigning Big Ten receiver of the year.
Then came Aug. 4, when Bateman announced he was opting out of the season and would declare for the NFL draft. Suddenly, Autman-Bell was the Gophers’ top pass-catching option for quarterback Tanner Morgan. Autman-Bell was left with mixed feelings.
“When Rashod left, I was so happy for him,” he said. “That’s my brother, my little brother, and he left before me. I was excited for him … but it was a feeling that I can’t play with my friend again.”
The bittersweet feelings didn’t last long. On Sept. 30, two weeks after the Big Ten reversed course and announced it would play football in 2020, Bateman did a 180-degree pivot, too, opting back in with the Gophers.
“When he came back, I can’t even talk about how happy I was,” Autman-Bell said, displaying his effervescent personality during a video news conference. “I’m glad I got my partner in crime back. … It’s exciting. I can’t wait to get on the field with him on Saturday.”
The eight weeks that Bateman was away from the team were invaluable for Autman-Bell, according to Mike Sanford Jr., the Gophers new offensive co-coordinator who will make his debut Saturday night against Michigan at TCF Bank Stadium.
“He was the bell cow. He was the experienced guy, and I think that’s the first time he’s been in that role,” Sanford said. “… He was forced to not only become the main guy in terms of production in fall camp, but he also was put into a leadership role where there’s a lot of good, young, talented receivers that he was leading.”
Autman-Bell took the advice of his position coach, Matt Simon, who splits offensive coordinator duties with Sanford, and didn’t put too much pressure on himself.
“I said to myself, ‘You don’t have to change anything. Just be yourself.’ Coach Simon even told me, ‘You don’t have to be a hero. Just keep being you.’ “
While Autman-Bell’s average yards per catch decreased from 16.0 from his freshman year to 13.3 in 2019, his receptions made a bigger impact, starting with his first career touchdown catch.
With the Gophers trailing Fresno State 28-21 in the final minute, facing fourth-and-13, Morgan hit Autman-Bell in the left corner of the end zone for a 20-yard touchdown. Autman-Bell leapt to snag the ball and tapped down his left foot millimeters from the end line, and Minnesota won in double overtime.
A 70-yard TD catch-and-run against Purdue followed in the Big Ten opener, starting a string of scoring receptions in three consecutive games. Then came the Gophers’ Nov. 9 showdown against No. 5 Penn State, when Autman-Bell took a tunnel screen 21 yards for a TD to give Minnesota a first-quarter lead.
Autman-Bell, like Morgan, originally committed to Western Michigan but switched to Minnesota when Fleck took the Gophers job.
The receiver nicknamed “Crab” has supreme confidence in his pass-catching ability but knows his game has room to grow.
“Coach Simon has always told me, ‘To be a better wide receiver, you can’t just be a great ball-catcher. You’ve got to work on blocking, work on releases, work on route-running.
“ … Hopefully, you guys will see a way more explosive and better receiver out there.”