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Spring Game Notebook: Rashod Bateman and pass rushers flash in Maroon's 38-20 win

04/13/2019, 3:45pm CDT
By Daniel House

Even though snow moved things inside, the Gophers spring game continued at the Athlete’s Village. The heat was turned up by an electrifying six catches for 164 yards by sophomore wide receiver Rashod Bateman. The star of the maroon team, Bateman’s 47 and 62-yard grabs were sparked by beautiful releases and footwork. Quarterback Zack Annexstad was confident when going Bateman’s way. The efforts by Annexstad and Bateman helped the maroon team breeze past the gold squad for a 38-20 victory. 

Annexstad finished the afternoon 9-for-15 with 191 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He connected at all levels of the field and showed off velocity and timing to get the ball out to the hashes. The sophomore quarterback is willing to take chances and showed nice zip and ball placement when fitting passes into tight windows. He also is more willing to take chances deep down the field. Annexstad played behind the better offensive line and it allowed him to move in the pocket and find his targets downhill. 

On the gold team, quarterback Tanner Morgan had less time to work as the offensive line had more trouble keeping the pocket clean. Morgan struggled when tasked with pushing the ball downfield and getting it out to a spot quickly. This was particularly evident on throws where he needs to get the ball downfield vertically or to the sidelines with velocity. His worst throw of the day came when he moved outside the pocket and tossed a wild pass in space to linebacker Thomas Rush, who took it the other way for a 69-yard touchdown. Rush was a standout performer in this game and earned co-MVP honors with Rashod Bateman. He displayed all of his athleticism and length both in coverage and against the run. He is someone who could rotate into the linebacker core for various sub-packages. 

Despite the poor interception, Tanner Morgan still managed help the offense move and displayed particularly sound touch and ball placement in the red zone. He finished the day 11-for-17 with 139 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Morgan found Brevyn Spann-Ford in the front corner of the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown between cornerback Kelvin Clemmons and safety Calvin Swenson. Spann-Ford was split out wide, got separation with his release and adjusted to the pass for a beautiful grab. A few minutes later, Cole Kramer used play-action to find Brevyn Spann-Ford up the seam for a 16-yard touchdown. Spann-Ford finished the afternoon with three catches for 32 yards and a pair of touchdown grabs. The 6-foot-7, 260-pound tight end has been developing behind the scenes and is a breakout candidate in the Gophers’ offense. When Minnesota reaches the red zone, he’s an extreme mismatch for opponents. 

In addition to Spann-Ford, the Minnesota wide receiving core was making plays all day. Tyler Johnson had three catches for 77 yards, including a beautiful inside release off a quick slant. He used quick feet and a beautiful angle out of the break to catch the pass and get separation on cornerback Chris Williamson. Outside of Johnson and Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell has been making improvements this offseason. He had two catches, including a 12-yard touchdown reception that was ruled a score upon further review by head coach P.J. Fleck. 

Keep those eyes on the pass rushers
Two of my breakout candidates for the Gophers this year are on the defensive line. One of them made a quick impression during Saturday’s spring game. Pass rusher Boye Mafe ripped and blew pass tackle Sam Schlueter for a sack. Mafe was a standout performer during the spring sessions. His long arms, quick twitch and bend around the corner make him very tough to stop. The physical and technical growth from him has taken his game to the next level. Head coach P.J. Fleck said after the spring game that Mafe may be one of the most valuable players on the Minnesota defense this year. He added that he will be moved all over to different alignments to take advantage of his unique athletic profile. 

Moments later, JJ Guedet was beaten by Carter Coughlin for a second sack in a matter of two drives. Coughlin was getting the corner and made an excellent play against the run, bull rushing and ripping through Sam Schlueter for his second tackle-for-loss of the day. Improving against the run is something Coughlin has been striving for this offseason. After practice, he talked about having not only his gap, but the one next to him. Throughout the afternoon, it was apparent to see the Gophers not only have Coughlin, but some blossoming young pass rushers. Boye Mafe and Esezi Otomewo have been standout performers throughout the spring. After time in the strength and conditioning program, they’ve added more strength and technical components to their skill set. 

Otomewo was consistently making plays against the run and had seven total tackles, including one where he managed to shed and pursue the play across the line of scrimmage. With the development of young defensive linemen, the Gophers can try to feature more consistency against the run, while putting more heat on the quarterback. With players like Mafe and Otomewo, there is also plenty of potential to shift them around to different alignments to maximize matchup potential. 

In the secondary, it was much harder to evaluate due to the angle we were at on the field. However, one of the key takeaways was the open field tackling in the backend. This was an area of emphasis for Minnesota this offseason. Safety Jordan Howden had two notable stops in space and led the team with nine tackles. He also grabbed an interception when Zack Annexstad tried to force a throw across the middle. Howden was in excellent position and fought for the ball through contact. He also added a forced fumble and was very aggressive in run support. The young safety certainly benefited from the immediate experience he gained last season.

Minnesota’s cornerbacks were dipping into run support often and Justus Harris had two tough stops on the edge. Harris was brought off a nickel blitz and tallied a sack when the Gophers had slide protection moving the opposite direction. The physicality in the secondary is something Minnesota will continue to strive for this season. There were many moments last year where the team allowed unnecessary yards after the catch because they couldn’t make plays in space. The tackling fundamentals were certainly encouraging in this game and throughout spring practice sessions. 

The final takeaway was the fact safety Antoine Winfield Jr. played an entire half of football after missing most of last season with a lisfranc injury. He is someone who could elevate the Gophers’ defense to another level if he can stay healthy this year.

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