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Gophers Fall Practice Notebook: P.J. Fleck names Zack Annexstad the starting QB

08/20/2018, 10:45pm CDT
By Daniel House

With ten days until the Gophers kick off the 2018 season, the quarterback competition has ended. Head coach P.J. Fleck has named true freshman walk-on quarterback Zack Annexstad the starter for Week 1 against New Mexico State. He will become just the second true freshman walk-on quarterback in FBS History to start Week 1. The only other quarterback to do so was Cleveland Browns 2018 No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield. 

“It was the hardest decision I’ve had to make as a head football coach. Both tremendous individuals, tremendous leaders,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “This was the hardest decision. This is why it went all the way as late as it did. But when you look at different things that I look at, statistics that matter to me, statistics that I keep every day -- very, very close…they’re both incredible leaders, their intangibles are off the charts, the way they’ve owned the team -- off the charts for freshman.”

Annexstad, a three-star quarterback from IMG Academy in Florida, chose to walk-on at Minnesota over Power-5 offers from Illinois and Pittsburgh. During his senior season, he completed 63-of-112 passes for 940 yards and 10 touchdowns, as he led IMG Academy to an undefeated season. Before that, he also managed to steal a few reps from Artur Sitkowski, a four-star quarterback who committed to Rutgers in 2018. The Norseland, Minn. native once again earned an opportunity. This time, he will lead the Gophers during the season-opener against New Mexico State on Aug. 30. 

As the Gophers tried to flip the roster at positions with weak depth, they were forced to convince talented players like Annexstad to turn down other scholarship offers to walk-on. Trying to land Annexstad led to a few “sleepless nights” for the Gophers’ head coach. 

“We only had so many scholarships, we still needed to bring a ton of scholarship players that were willing to walk-on to buy into what we were doing – with scholarships from other Power-5 schools,” Fleck said. “That is very difficult to do. And to convince that young man to do that was almost impossible. That was a journey, that was some bumpy roads along the way, some scary times, some sleepless nights – even for myself.”

According to Fleck, Annexstad and redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan were close in the battle, but after tabulating explosive plays and other key metrics, the walk-on quarterback had an advantage. Fleck and the coaches were tracking a variety of statistics every day as they determined which quarterback would start. 

“[Annexstad] had a ton of explosive plays, down the field throws, wide-outs making plays, putting the ball where it needed to be,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “The efficiency – I think last year we were somewhere around 40 percent in quarterback completion percentage. You aren’t going to win many games if your team is 40 some percent.”

In training camp, each of the quarterbacks completed more than 60 percent of their passes as the Gophers attempt to improve an abysmal 42.1 percent completion in 2017. Not only that, but taking care of the football was another priority as the Gophers’ coaching staff decided which quarterback would be named the starter. 

Fleck said just because the coaching staff chose Annexstad as the primary starter, doesn’t mean redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan won’t see snaps this season. In a game where injuries happen, every player must be ready when called upon. 

“I told them at the beginning, I said, ‘whoever wins this job, this isn’t going to be some short leash. And just because somebody else went into the game at some point doesn’t mean that other person did something wrong,’” Fleck said. “That’s not going to be the case, but at some point, would I like Tanner to have some game reps? Yeah, because he’s one play away from being the guy, so if you can ever work that in as a head coach, absolutely you’d like to do that.”

When the Gophers take the field next Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium, the depth chart will inform everyone Zack Annexstad is a walk-on, but that’s not the case in Fleck’s eyes. From the beginning, the staff at Minnesota has viewed Annexstad just like any other player on scholarship. The talent has always been apparent. 

“He’s a walk-on on paper, but that kid was never a walk-on in our minds,” Fleck said. “We said that when we announced him, we just had to convince him to be able to be here and he’d have an equal opportunity to compete and that’s what he did.”

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