Headed into conference play, freshmen can change the Gophers’ Big Ten fate

There have been 27 true or redshirt freshmen to play this year for Minnesota.

Freshman Bryce Williams avoids a tackle on Saturday, Sept. 15 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Courtney Deutz

Freshman Bryce Williams avoids a tackle on Saturday, Sept. 15 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Jack Warrick

Going into Big Ten play this week against Maryland, the Terrapins will see a much different team march into their stadium than the one they saw at TCF Bank Stadium last year.

Twenty-seven true or redshirt freshmen have played for Minnesota this year. Whether that be on special teams, in a limited role, or as someone as important as the starting quarterback, Minnesota has and will need to use inexperienced players to drive the season forward.

“Do we have older guys? Yes we do, and they’re playing really well,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “But 60 guys on our team are freshmen. That’s way over half. So for us that’s got to be the focus because that’s the level [of] our leadership. Yes we have some of that at the top, but you’re only as good as what’s on the bottom, and we’ve got to be able to bring that up.”

Many of the key positions on Minnesota’s offense are filled by freshmen. The quarterback, Zack Annexstad is a walk-on true freshman. He has yet to throw an interception and has thrown 44-79 for 537 yards and four touchdowns. Last year, the quarterback duo of redshirt senior Conor Rhoda and redshirt sophomore Demry Croft threw 110-233 for 1,513 yards with 11 interceptions and nine touchdown passes.

“What I love about [the freshmen] is their attitude,” offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. “To come into this program and the stage not be too big for them, and them to come to work every day on a daily basis.”

Both running backs are freshmen in Mohamed Ibrahim and Bryce Williams. Former starting running back Rodney Smith suffered a season-ending injury in the game against Fresno State, which means those two will play a bigger role going forward.

Williams ran for 141 yards on 33 carries in last week’s game, with one catch for 35 yards. Ibrahim had 101 yards on nine carries against New Mexico State, and he is expected to return from an injury this week against Maryland.

“He’s a good back,” Ciarrocca said. “Just to have some more depth at the position. [Williams] carried the ball how many times? 33. That’s a lot to ask of any back.”

Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell make up two of the three top-producing wide receivers. Bateman has 13 catches for 124 yards, and Autman-Bell has seven catches for 89 yards this season. Each has yet to catch a touchdown pass, but their presence has taken attention off veteran wide receiver Tyler Johnson, who has five touchdowns through three games and averages nearly 100 yards-per game.

The final starter on the offensive side of the ball is right guard Blaise Andries. Andries has started each game this year after redshirting last season. He was ranked as the top prospect out of the state of Minnesota in the 2017 class.

On defense, the only starter is defensive back Terell Smith. Smith has 18 tackles through the first three games. He nabbed the first interception of his career in the win over Fresno State.

“He’s been a guy that’s really stepped up,” defensive coordinator Robb Smith said. “He’s just a great young man. He’s elite and he gets better, and he changes his best every day.”

Freshmen will be a big part of the team going into conference play. The inexperience hasn’t been a problem yet, exiting the non-conference schedule 3-0, but there will be challenges in the growth that needs to take place for a successful campaign in Big Ten Play.

“I feel like that’s the energy from every one of the freshmen,” senior linebacker Julian Huff said. “Once you get that first game under your belt you kind of get in a rhythm, and you understand what to expect.”