Zack Annexstad, a true freshman walk-on, will be the Gophers’ starting quarterback for Thursday night’s season opener against New Mexico State.
How does he feel about that?
Well, up until Tuesday morning, we didn’t know — the Gophers’ policy is that freshman cannot speak to the media. Coach P.J. Fleck, however, made an exception when he allowed Annexstad to be interviewed on ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” He described his reaction to receiving the news that he would start.
“I was pretty excited at the time,” said Annexstad, a Norseland, Minn., native who starred for IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. “I maybe didn’t show it at the moment. I’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, but this is something that I’ve been working for because I picked this culture, I picked this team. I knew the teammates that I would have, and I’m just really excited for it.”
When Annexstad takes the first snap Thursday, it is believed he will be only the second true freshman walk-on in major college football to start a season opener. He joins Baker Mayfield, who started Texas Tech’s opener in 2013 before transferring to Oklahoma, where he won the Heisman Trophy last year. Mayfield originally was going to be the Red Raiders’ backup, but he replaced Michael Brewer, who couldn’t start because of an injury.
That status didn’t seem to faze Annexstad.
“It’s exciting, but I’m working to just tune out the outside noise because I want to stay locked in,” he said. “We have a game on Thursday, and it’s coming up quickly.”
Annexstad won’t be the only freshman seeing action in the opener. The Gophers have 60 redshirt or true freshmen on their roster, and Fleck expects many to play. Their depth chart released Tuesday afternoon features three true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen as starters.
During Tuesday’s Big Ten coaches teleconference, Fleck said he prefers to keep freshmen away from the media and would rather they learn from older teammates and coaches first.
“Once in a while, you make an exception. But I’m pretty strong to that feeling of being able to educate them in Year 1,” Fleck said.
“But we’ll see. It just depends on how those players grow and how much they grasp and how ready they are for that type of media.”
Along with Annexstad, true freshmen listed as starters are wide receiver Rashod Bateman and defensive back Terell Smith. The Gophers also have two redshirt freshmen as starters: right guard Blaise Andries and wide receiver Demetrius Douglas.
Minnesota’s depth will rely heavily on youngsters. Along with those five freshmen who will start on offense or defense, 23 other freshmen (10 redshirt and 13 true) are listed as second string, with 11 positions having multiple players with an “or” designation.
In the 22 spots on offense and defense, the Gophers will start seven seniors, five juniors, five sophomores and five freshmen.
Star Tribune College Football Preview Week:
• Sunday’s story was a look at how the Gophers’ long and often-disappointing history of quarterback play is running right up against a coach who has proved he can work some quarterback magic: Kirk Ciarrocca, the U’s offensive coordinator. Read the story here. Columnist Chip Scoggins also wrote about quarterbacks, and how the young Gophers will be guessing for quite some time as Zack Annexstad learns on the job.
• Monday’s edition featured our small college preview.
• Additionally, declining ticket sales is a big story across the country and for the University of Minnesota. Our Rachel Blount wrote about this issue for the Monday morning front page. One of the many interesting threads of that story: amid the big declines, “nonrevenue” sports, including all Gophers women’s teams, have seen an increase in ticket revenue.