With safety Antoine Winfield Jr., the Gophers’ top playmaker on defense, out for the season because of a left foot injury suffered Saturday at Maryland, P.J. Fleck and his coaching staff had to adjust quickly. True freshman walk-on Jordan Howden stepped in to replace Winfield, and on Tuesday Fleck said Howden and true freshman Benny Sapp III are taking practice repetitions and that senior Antonio Shenault is a possibility to move from cornerback to safety.
“He’s played some safety for us last year,’’ Fleck said during the weekly Big Ten teleconference. “We worked on it today. We’re coaching the young guys up, giving for a lot of young guys to play. We have a plan.’’
Fleck also said redshirt sophomore defensive back Kiondre Thomas didn’t accompany the team to Maryland because of a violation of team a rule. “If you don’t do the right things, you’re not going to play,’’ said Fleck, who didn’t say how long Thomas would be out.
As for Winfield, Fleck said Winfield underwent surgery on Monday and is in good spirits.
“He’s doing really well, recovering well,’’ Fleck said. “He’s going to spend some time at home [in The Woodlands, Texas] for a while and get back here.’’
Fleck is confident that Winfield, a third-year sophomore, will qualify for a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility. Last year, Winfield was lost for the season because of a hamstring injury suffered against Maryland and received a waiver. If he is granted the waiver for this season, Winfield would have the 2019, 2020 and 2021 seasons remaining.
“I keep telling him, he’s getting younger and younger each year. Now, he’s like a redshirt, redshirt freshman,’’ Fleck said. “He basically in the same class as [true freshman receiver] Rashod Bateman now, if that’s the way he wants it to go.’’
Fleck said Winfield has kept an upbeat attitude since suffering the injury. “He has very, very positive spirits,’’ Fleck said. “I was with him yesterday when he had his surgery … and he was smiling all the way to the operating room.’’