Gophers give a sneak preview of next season with spring game

The maroon team, led by quarterback Zack Annexstad, won 38-20.

Sophomore Thomas Rush intercepts the ball for a touchdown on Saturday, April 13, 2019 at the football facility in Athletes Village.

Tony Saunders

Sophomore Thomas Rush intercepts the ball for a touchdown on Saturday, April 13, 2019 at the football facility in Athlete’s Village.

by Jack Warrick

Next season’s Gophers football team was on display in the spring game at Athlete’s Village’s indoor practice facility Saturday.

The game, which was moved indoors and not open to the public because of space restrictions, was played by dividing the Gophers roster into two teams — a maroon team and gold team — and then playing four 15 minute quarters without hitting on kickoffs and punts. 

The maroon, led by quarterback Zack Annexstad and the two spring game MVPs, receiver Rashod Bateman and linebacker Thomas Rush, took a 38-20 victory after leading 28-7 at halftime.

“They treated it like a game day, and prepared like that,” said head coach P.J. Fleck. “I thought we had a tremendous spring. We did exactly what we said we wanted to do.”

The spring game is an opportunity to see inexperienced, young players take the field in real game situations. When Fleck was asked about which new players had a good game, the first name he said was Rush. Rush had a 71-yard interception returned for a touchdown in the first half. He recored one sack and five tackles last season. The linebacker position will need a new starter this season after former linebacker and NFL Draft hopeful Blake Cashman graduated.

“[Rush] had some sweet tackles. He had the pick-six. I mean he’s stepped up big time,” defensive end Carter Coughlin said. “He’s had a great spring ball this far, but it shows what he’s going to be able to do for us this year.”

Maroon started scoring in the game with a 31-yard touchdown reception to junior tight end Bryce Witham. Then, 400-pound offensive lineman Daniel Faalele took a handoff from Annexstad and ran for a 6-yard touchdown.

“When the defense got back to the sideline, I told them, ‘there was nothing you could do back there,'” said gold team receiver Tyler Johnson. “I told them, ‘Just get back in there. Keep playing football.'”

The Gold team, led by quarterback Tanner Morgan and coached by defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, swung back with a 12-yard touchdown reception from sophomore receiver Chris Autman-Bell to make the score 14-7. Then maroon’s running back Mohamed Ibrahim ran for a 2-yard touchdown and Rush returned an interception 71 yards for a score of 28-7 to end the half.

Gold out-scored Maroon 13-10 in the second half with two touchdown catches from red shirt freshman tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford. But it wasn’t enough, as the Maroon team won 38-20.

Morgan and Annexstad, the two starting quarterbacks on Saturday, were the two starting quarterbacks in the 2018 season. Annexstad started out as the starter last year before suffering and injury during a game at Nebraska. Morgan started all the games after that. He was the quarterback when Minnesota beat Wisconsin and when the team beat Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl. It is still unknown who Fleck will pick to start when the season starts on August 29 against South Dakota State.

“I thought they completed balls they needed to complete. I thought they ran the offense very effectively,” Fleck said. “They completed a lot of balls down the field, which I wanted to see. Our down the field pass game has to be more efficient.”

Antoine Winfield Jr., the Gophers’ star safety, was back on the field running at full speed after suffering a leg injury and having surgery in the fall. Tight end/wildcat quarterback Seth Green, who had eight rushing touchdowns and two passing touchdowns last season, was also in a jersey and street clothes on the sidelines. 

Redshirt junior running back Rodney Smith, who suffered a season-ending injury last season, had pads on, but didn’t play. Running back Shannon Brooks, who also suffered a season-ending injury last season, was watching without pads on the sidelines.

“We’re taking our time with both of them,” Fleck said. “We’re deep there, but you can’t be deep enough at running back. And they’re all going to get plenty of carries. We’re going to need them all.”