In our “Race to MAHturity” series, we will be highlighting Gopher football players who are expected to step up and take on a bigger role for Minnesota next season.
All anyone could talk about last season were Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. And who could blame them? The pass-catching duo combined for 146 receptions, 2,537 receiving yards, and 24 touchdowns, becoming the first wide receiver tandem from the same team to both be named First-Team All-Big Ten in the same season.
You’d be forgiven for overlooking Chris Autman-Bell, who posted a pedestrian 28 receptions for 347 receiving yards and five touchdowns as the No. 3 target in the Gophers’ passing game. But with Johnson headed to the NFL, Autman-Bell seems poised to step into the spotlight.
And you don’t have to look too closely to see what Autman-Bell can do.
The Fresno State game from last season is a perfect example. Tanner Morgan and Autman-Bell saved the Gophers’ bacon on 4th and 13 from the Fresno State 20, with Minnesota trailing 28-21 and less than a minute left in regulation. Morgan dropped a dime to Autman-Bell in the back of the end zone for a game-tying touchdown and help send the game to overtime.
There is so much to admire about this play. First and foremost, the pass from Morgan is perfect. But the concentration by Autman-Bell is what I can’t get over. He has his head turned watching the ball, without breaking stride or drifting out of bounds. Then Autman-Bell high points the ball and secures it with a defensive back reaching in to stop him from completing the catch. And for the pièce de résistance, he gets that left foot down with almost no real estate left.
Three weeks later, Autman-Bell turned heads against Purdue with a 70-yard touchdown strike in the first quarter. Prior to this play, I didn’t know he had this kind of speed.
The route combination is a bubble and post, with Bateman responsible for the former and Autman-Bell taking the latter as the outside receiver. Neither linebacker drops into coverage and a safety on the play side rushes to cover up Bateman, leaving Autman-Bell wide open behind him. The rest is Autman-Bell leaving the Boilermakers’ secondary in the dust, with an assist from Johnson.
But my favorite play from Autman-Bell came against Penn State. I know there is a lot of love for Bateman’s 66-yard touchdown strike that ignited the home crowd on the Gophers’ first drive of the game and Johnson’s one-handed touchdown catch down the sideline in the second quarter, but I can never watch Autman-Bell’s first quarter touchdown enough times.
The execution on this play is phenomenal. It is a tunnel screen that sees all three of the Gophers’ interior offensive lineman clearing a path for Autman-Bell, with Blaise Andries and Curtis Dunlap making the key blocks in the second level. At one point, around the 15-yard line, there are at least four Nittany Lion players closing in on Autman-Bell and maybe two of them even get a hand on him. His ability to make defenders miss in the open field is outstanding.
I don’t know if it is fair to expect Autman-Bell to be able to replicate Johnson’s production next season, but he certainly has the talent and skill to make defenses regret focusing on Bateman.