Even before P.J. Fleck and his staff arrived to take over the program earlier this year, Antoine Winfield Jr. was making the type of did-you-see-that plays that earned him the label of the Gophers’ next standout defensive back.
Remember his 82-yard interception return for a touchdown to put a stamp on Minnesota’s first Big Ten win last year against Maryland?
Winfield, the son of a former Vikings standout with the same name, wasted no time in showing that his sophomore season could be more of that, and then some.
In the season opener last week, the 5-10, 204-pounder had seven tackles, two pass breakups, a sack and a blocked field goal in a 17-7 win against Buffalo.
“He’s a special player,” said Fleck, who coaches his first Gophers road game Saturday at Oregon State. “You knew that just because of his blood line, right, but when you watch how he [played] … that is how I want everyone on this football team to play.”
Fleck almost didn’t have Winfield around to set an example.
Winfield was among 10 players suspended for last season’s bowl game for their role in an alleged sexual assault last September. His father was upset about the discipline handed out and adamant at the time that his son did nothing wrong and would transfer to another school.
“I really don’t have much to say about what happened last year,” Winfield said Wednesday in his first public comment about the situation. “I’m just focused on what’s happening this year — and the great things to come.”
Two things kept Winfield in maroon and gold: He faced no further discipline after winning an appeals process, and Fleck persuaded him to stick around.
Not long after Fleck was hired in January to replace Tracy Claeys, he took a trip to the Winfield’s home in Texas to talk to both father and son.
Fleck desperately needed Winfield back. As a national all-freshman team selection, he produced 52 tackles for a secondary that had senior starters Damarius Travis and Jalen Myrick.
“Dealing with a lot of people who were on the fence, I think the biggest thing was: Go through and see what I’m like,” Fleck said about his pitch to the Winfields and others. “That’s one thing that we can always say with us is what you see is what you get every single day. … And if this is what you want for your son, keep him here and … I will prove to you, that that was the best decision.”
If Winfield had any doubt he made the right choice to stay, it was squashed in spring practice. He accepted the challenge of being a leader and moving from safety to nickel and cornerback if needed. His transition with a new staff was quicker than expected. That carried over into fall camp and the opener.
“I’m enjoying it so much more now,” Winfield said. “I just love being out there with my brothers and being able to compete, especially here for Minnesota.”
The only setback came in early August when Winfield was carted off the field following a hamstring injury in practice. Fleck waited until four days before the opener to announce Winfield would play. But when describing how he felt after the game, Winfield showed how much he’s bought into Fleck by using one of his new coach’s trademark lines.
“My body feels great,” he said with a smile. “It’s elite. It’s elite.”