Gophers safety Antoine Winfield Jr., in coach P.J. Fleck's estimation, is "one of the best players in the country." Winfield, however, won't play in Saturday's homecoming game against Iowa — or in any other contest this season — because of a foot injury suffered in the Big Ten opener.
In place of Winfield, who might be the most indispensable player on the team, the Gophers are turning to Jordan Howden, a true freshman walk-on from Las Vegas.
No pressure, kid.
"He's a gamer," said Tico Rodriguez, Howden's coach at Desert Pines High School, the reigning Nevada Class 3A state champion. "He pretty much locked everybody down that we put him against."
That Howden is with the Gophers is a story in itself. He didn't join the program until June after receiving a walk-on offer. He was an under-the-radar recruit, Rodriguez believes, because he transferred from Vista Murrieta High School in Murrieta, Calif., to Desert Pines for his senior season after his parents moved to Las Vegas.
"He kind of got lost in the shuffle, but he dominated in Nevada," said Rodriguez, who used Howden in a Winfield-like role by matching him against the opponent's best player, be it as a safety or a cornerback. "I was shocked other schools didn't jump on him, because I've had guys go to the Pac-12. I thought he was better."
Howden — who, per team policy regarding true freshmen, can't speak to the media — had interest from FCS-level Idaho State before Gophers defensive backs coach Jahmile Addae saw film of him.
"They really liked his length," Rodriguez said of the 5-11, 185-pounder. "I thought the kid was a diamond in the rough."
Howden played in the first three games of the Gophers season and was thrust into the first-team role when Winfield was injured on the first series at Maryland. He showed some freshman moments, such as a missed tackle on Ty Johnson's 81-yard touchdown run, but coaches and teammates are confident he'll rebound. Fleck even said that Howden "won't be a walk-on for long."
"We threw him in the fire there, and that's going to pay dividends for us down the road," said defensive coordinator Robb Smith, who added that multiple players will help fill Winfield's role. "He's an extremely smart young football player, and he cares a lot."
Added senior defensive back Antonio Shenault: "He's going to play with way more confidence this week."
Rodriguez expects just that. In Howden's debut at Desert Pines, he returned two interceptions for touchdowns.
"That's when I knew," Rodriguez said, "Wow, this kid's special."