No experience, no problem? Gophers’ freshman Zack Annexstad poised to take over at QB

The true freshman walk-on beat out Tanner Morgan to get the start at quarterback for the 2018 season.

Quarterback Zack Annexstad looks to throw the ball at TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 30. The Gophers defeated the New Mexico State Aggies 48-10.

Jack Rodgers

Quarterback Zack Annexstad looks to throw the ball at TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday, Aug. 30. The Gophers defeated the New Mexico State Aggies 48-10.

Jack Warrick

The Gophers have gone back to a single quarterback leading their offense this year, and that starter is true freshman walk-on Zack Annexstad.

Annexstad contributed to the Gophers’ home opening victory over New Mexico State when he completed 16-33 passes for 220 yards with two touchdown passes, both to wide receiver Tyler Johnson. He had zero total rushing yards with no interceptions and one fumble.

“He’s got to continue to grow and get better in a ton of areas,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “If you asked him, he would give you a whole line of what was actually, you know, good and bad, but probably more of the bad part of what he had to get better at.”

Annexstad faced one of the first challenges of his new career when he fumbled on the Minnesota 12-yard line, giving New Mexico State a touchdown from the turnover. After that fumble, his offense went on to score touchdowns on three of the next four drives.

“[I] wasn’t surprised at all,” running back Rodney Smith said. “I expected that from [Annexstad]. He’s showed it since he’s stepped foot on campus and I’m proud of him that he didn’t let that fumble rattle him.”

Annexstad is a Minnesota native who played his high school football at the IMG Academy in Florida, a school known for producing football talent. He came to Minnesota as a walk on and chose to stay in his home state, though he had offers from Illinois, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Before the season, junior college quarterback Vic Viramontes transferred to Minnesota. As the summer went on and the competition waged on, Viramontes transferred back to his junior college, leaving Morgan and Annexstad to fight for the spot after six months with the Gophers.

Annexstad beat out redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan after a summer of competition in the Athletes Village. Morgan and Annexstad both had no college game experience while Morgan had a year of practice with the Gophers. 

“You’re not going to meet two more competitive people when they get on that field than those two,” Fleck said earlier in the summer. “They’re decisive decision makers. They don’t feel like freshmen.”

Fleck announced Seth Green as the third string quarterback behind Annexstad and Morgan, but against New Mexico State, Green ran two plays as the wildcat quarterback for two pivotal touchdown runs.

“[Green’s] kind of that Swiss Army knife where he’s got a lot of different tools for us to be able to use,” Fleck said. “We just have to continue to be creative, do the what defense gives us and be able to create opportunities for him to be able to show what he can do and help out football team.”

Fleck said the Gophers might play Morgan throughout the season too, but the vast majority of time is expected to go to Annexstad. 

The head coach said earlier in the summer that the team would be confident with either Morgan or Annexstad at quarterback. 

“I felt like [Annexstad] was really poised… His control of the game, at no point did I feel like he was out of control,” offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. “At no time did I feel like the moment was too big for him.”

Morgan played the final few minutes of the first game, completing one pass for seven yards.

Zack’s brother, Brock Annexstad, is listed as a wide receiver on the roster in his redshirt freshman season with the Gophers, although he is not listed in the depth chart. Their father, Scott Annexstad, played on the offensive line for the Gophers from 1982-83.

Annexstad is the first true freshman walk on to start an FBS season since current Cleveland Browns quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield did it for Texas Tech in 2013.

“I was really proud of [Annexstad’s] poise and how he handled himself and how he was able to respond from the adversity that happened early,” Fleck said, though he said he has a lot to get better at too.

The Gophers quarterback situation has been in a state of flux since the graduation of Mitch Leidner following the 2016 season.

After the three-year starter in Leidner departed, last season struggled under the guidance of the two-quarterback system of Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft, both of whom are not with the Gophers this season.

The Gophers will go on to play Fresno State on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. at TCF Bank Stadium. The Bulldogs won their season opener 79-13. Their offense had the most points in NCAA football last week.

“It’s a very formidable opponent,” Smith said. “Those guys are as good as anybody we’ll play this year.”