Gophers safety Adekunle Ayinde was sitting in English class at Blaine High School three years ago, when his teacher got a call from the football coach, summoning him to his office.
“I thought I was in trouble,” Ayinde said. “I walked down there, and I see Coach [Jerry] Kill and Coach [Rob] Reeves just smiling at me.”
They offered to make him a preferred walk-on, meaning he wouldn’t get a scholarship, but he’d have a chance to play Division I football. Ayinde jumped at it.
One of the first friends he made after joining the team was Nick Hart, a walk-on tight end from Prior Lake.
Those two have been toiling away, mostly behind the scenes, ever since. But there they were Saturday, playing important roles in Minnesota’s 23-20 overtime victory at Colorado State.
Ayinde made his first career start, filling in for Damarius Travis (hamstring) and Ace Rogers (knee), two safeties out because of injuries. Ayinde had four tackles.
Not bad for a player who made only 11 tackles in high school. He played cornerback as a sophomore at Blaine, then switched to offense for two years, playing wide receiver and running back. Before the Gophers showed up, the only colleges recruiting him were Minnesota State Mankato, St. Cloud State and the University of Sioux Falls.
“Jay Sawvel must be a pretty good coach,” Kill said of the Gophers defensive backs coach. “He’s got two premier players out [at safety], and he’s got ‘Kunle,’ who nobody even heard of. Some people probably don’t know he’s on the roster.”
In Hart’s case, his father, Pat, was a center for the Gophers in the 1980s. Hart drew interest from South Dakota State, North Dakota and some Division II schools, but the U always was his dream.
“Growing up a Gopher fan, going to all the Gopher games growing up, there’s not a single other place in the world that I wanted to be,” Hart said. “And the fact they gave me an opportunity to come here, walk-on or not, I was all over it.”
Reeves, who coaches the tight ends, said the staff thought about putting Hart at wide receiver when he came in at 215 pounds. But the 6-5 Hart has grown to 250 pounds.
“He’s a phenomenal athlete,” Reeves said. “He’s playing aggressive, physical football and hasn’t missed a step. He’s got great hands, so he’s a tremendous story just because of how hard he’s worked to get to where he is today.”
The Gophers lost Maxx Williams early to the NFL and Drew Goodger graduated, leaving the team without their two tight end mainstays last year. Lincoln Plsek (back) and Duke Anyanwu (knee), might not play all season because of injuries, and Brandon Lingen suffered a concussion at Colorado State.
So Hart was thrust into some key spots. He just missed a diving touchdown catch in the second quarter. On the team’s late fourth-quarter touchdown drive, Mitch Leidner fired a pass toward the sideline, and Hart bobbled it before coming down with his first college catch, running for a 14-yard gain.
“Coming off the line, and seeing that ball coming at me at 100 miles per hour, it was nerve-racking, and I got lucky,” Hart said.
Kill was still beaming about Hart’s catch the next day.
“I would say Rob Reeves is a pretty darn good tight ends coach,” Kill said.
Other walk-on success stories under Kill include Cameron Botticelli, who had a stint with the San Diego Chargers this preseason, and reigning Big Ten punter of the year Peter Mortell.
“When [walk-ons] come in, we don’t treat this guy better than this guy, we coach them all,” Kill said. “I’ve always said, ‘You play football, you hang around long enough and enough injuries occur, you’ll have a chance to play.’ That’s how things go sometimes.”
Wide receiver Jeff Jones (ankle) was full-go at Tuesday’s practice. Lingen and wide receiver KJ Maye (unspecified injury) were both in green nonparticipation jerseys.