Head coach P.J. Fleck has not yet announced a starting quarterback for the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ season opener against New Mexico State on Thursday, Aug. 30.
But after three open practices — and a visit from the crew at the Big Ten Network — one quarterback seems to have pulled ahead in the competition.
That would be true freshman walk-on Zack Annexstad.
Now, before you start sweating profusely, understand Annexstad is not your average walk-on.
The son of Scott Annexstad, who played football for the Gophers from 1982-83, Zack declined scholarship offers from Cincinnati, Illinois, Pittsburgh, Southern Miss, and Western Kentucky for the opportunity to walk on at Minnesota and compete for the starting quarterback spot. He explained his bold choice in a Q&A with 247 Sports ($):
“Most people want to take the easy route nowadays. I am out to be different. A lot of people think I am crazy for my decision, and that is okay. Nothing has ever been given to me. Also, I want to compete. I want to compete with the best of the best.”
And when he says he wants to compete, he isn’t kidding.
At the IMG Academy in Florida, Annexstad started his senior season serving as back-up to eventual Rutgers signee Artur Sitkowski, a top-rated quarterback prospect with scholarship offers from Ohio State, Michigan, Wisconsin, Miami, and UCLA, among others. But by midseason, Annexstad had supplanted Sitkowski as starting quarterback.
He entered a similar situation when he enrolled in the spring at Minnesota.
JUCO quarterback Vic Viramontes and redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan were believed by most — myself, included — to be the top two candidates to take over as the Gophers’ starting quarterback, with Annexstad a competitive third-string option.
The scramble + the toss + the YAC = .— Minnesota on BTN (@MinnesotaOnBTN) April 12, 2018
And the redshirt senior @Numerouno1_ starts his final season off right with a @GopherFootball spring TD: pic.twitter.com/Ha8uRtJ8rS
But Viramontes struggled throughout spring practice and was 1-for-3 for a single passing yard in the spring game, fumbling twice while rushing for 33 yards on six attempts. Annexstad was 11-for-18 for 186 yards and one touchdown, finding Rodney Smith wide open on a seam route that the senior running back ended up turning into a 56-yard touchdown reception.
When it became clear both Morgan and Annexstad had passed him on the depth chart, Viramontes opted to transfer back to Riverside City College in California.
Video: #Gophers QB Zack Annexstad throws to WRs Tyler Johnson and Matt Morse during open portion of Tuesday’s practice; QB Tanner Morgan goes to Harry Van Dyne and Paul Gossage; Annexstad comes back with ball to Rashod Bateman. pic.twitter.com/ZPUkbd3CeC— Andy Greder (@andygreder) August 9, 2018
Which brings us to fall camp. In the three practices that have been open to fans and media, Morgan and Annexstad have split first-team reps at quarterback. Morgan seems to excel more in the short and intermediate passing game, whereas Annexstad has the arm talent to make accurate throws down the field that Morgan simply can’t make.
I hesitate to make this comparison, but the situation feels similar to last season with Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft. Morgan seems to be the safer choice, much like Rhoda, with a lower ceiling but less chance for disaster, and Annexstad is the Croft of the pair — albeit, a much better passer — with a superior arm and a higher ceiling but less polish. With that said, I think the Gophers are in better shape than a season ago, in terms of talent, with Morgan and Annexstad.
It’s important to remember that both are also freshmen, and neither one of them has been able to avoid the inevitable mistakes and growing pains that come from a lack of experience. But Annexstad seems to be asserting himself through his play and demeanor, and even visitors from outside the program are starting to take notice.
Thought both QB’s threw it well today - if I had to guess, I’d say Zack Anexstad will be the starter - but they’ll be better at the position no matter who wins the job. pic.twitter.com/SwHWtqDuzo— Dave Revsine (@BTNDaveRevsine) August 16, 2018
While it’s certainly not an ideal situation to have a true freshman starting quarterback who hasn’t attempted a collegiate pass, if I’ve learned anything, it’s to never doubt Zack Annexstad.