Once unsure of staying with team, Antoine Winfield Jr. shines in Gophers’ defense early

The sophomore defensive back had two pass deflections, a sack and a blocked field goal against Buffalo.

Defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. celebrates after a tackle on Thursday, Aug. 31, at TCF Bank Stadium.

Ellen Schmidt, Daily File Photo

Defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. celebrates after a tackle on Thursday, Aug. 31, at TCF Bank Stadium.

Jack Warrick

Antoine Winfield Jr. was carted off the field after tweaking his hamstring in early August.

In the season opener on Aug. 31, the sophomore defensive back showed no signs of injury in a performance that led the team to victory over Buffalo. He had a sack and two pass deflections, and blocked a field goal.

“That kid loves football, and you can tell by the way he plays the game,” head coach P.J. Fleck said after the game. “He’s special, and he’s also a very humble kid, but he’s all over the field.”

Though he accounted for the only sack and blocked field goal for the Gophers, the sophomore wasn’t impressed with his performance.

“I think I played an average game, personally,” Winfield Jr. said. “I feel like I could have played better. I could have played better coverage, I could have made more plays, I could have had an interception.”

Last year, Winfield posted 52 total tackles, three pass break-ups and one interception return for touchdown in the 12 regular season games he played in. 

The only game he missed was the bowl game against Washington State when he and nine other Gophers football players were suspended in the wake of a sexual assault case that did not result in criminal charges.

“I don’t really have much to say about what happened last year,” Winfield Jr. said. “I’m just focused on what’s happening this year and the great things to come.”

He was cleared of all charges in mid-March, but it was unsure whether he would choose to play for the Gophers in the 2017 season.

His father, Antoine Winfield Sr., was a former pro bowl NFL cornerback for the Minnesota Vikings. Winfield Sr. said last December his family feels disrespected by the University’s treatment of his son. 

Fleck had to do a lot of convincing to keep Winfield Jr. from transferring, as he flew to Winfield’s hometown in Texas to talk things out and convince him and his father to stay with the Gophers, the Star Tribune reported.

“‘Is this who you want your son to be around?’” Fleck said when convincing Winfield’s parents. “If it isn’t still what you think you want for your son, then don’t be here.”

If Fleck hadn’t convinced Winfield to stay, he would have had to fill a major gap, as Winfield Jr. started nine games last year and had a good enough performance to give him freshman All-American honors.

“You really can sense that he loves to play the game when he’s in there,” said defensive coordinator Robb Smith.

Next game for Winfield and the Gophers is Oregon State, and the Beavers have scored 62 in two games. Winfield said his body felt “elite” heading into this Saturday’s game.