After the loss of his top playmaker on defense, P.J. Fleck said Tuesday he is turning to two more true freshmen to become key contributors.
With safety Antoine Winfield Jr. out for the season because of a left foot injury, Fleck and his staff are hoping walk-on Jordan Howden and Benny Sapp III can step up. Howden replaced Winfield on Saturday at Maryland, and Fleck said Howden and Sapp are taking practice repetitions. Another option at safety could be senior Antonio Shenault moving from cornerback.
"He's played some safety for us last year," Fleck said. "We worked on it today. We're coaching the young guys up."
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.
Winfield underwent surgery Monday and is in good spirits, Fleck said, adding "He's doing really well, recovering well. 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," Fleck said. "Now, he's like a redshirt, redshirt freshman."
Fleck said Winfield has kept an upbeat attitude since suffering the injury.
"I was with him yesterday when he had his surgery," Fleck said, "and he was smiling all the way to the operating room.''