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Published April 19, 2024

Antoine Winfield Jr. is poised to be a star

The redshirt sophomore only played in four games last year, but has already turned heads.

When Antoine Winfield Jr. realized the running back was going to throw the ball in the back of the end zone, he caught up to the receiver and intercepted the ball while somehow keeping one foot on the ground, sealing the victory for the Gophers on Saturday night. 

“I just remember seeing the running back getting the ball and I saw his hands go up like he was going to throw it… I just put my head down and high-pointed the ball,” Winfield Jr. said. “I thought I was beat, but once I saw where the ball was [I] made a play.” 

After the game, Gophers’ head coach P.J. Fleck gave Winfield Jr. a kiss on the forehead. Fleck said he tried to recreate the play with the managers the next day and he nearly tore his ACL, dislocated his hip and tore his rotator cuff.

“Those… plays are the reason why it’s a players game,” Fleck said. “You can coach these kids up all you want, but they are out there making those types of plays.”

Before making the game-winning interception, Winfield Jr. ran a 76-yard punt return for a touchdown in the Gophers’ first game against New Mexico State. In that return, he broke several defenders’ tackles and sprinted down the sidelines for a touchdown that was a part of a 28-point second quarter for the Gophers. Fleck and others on the team said it was one of the most spectacular punt returns they have ever seen. 

Winfield Jr. has played an integral role for the Gophers so far this season. Not only has he made those two incredible plays, he also tallied 10 tackles through the first two games. 

Defensive coordinator Robb Smith was not surprised by the defensive back’s performance. 

“Those plays he has made have been unbelievable,” Smith said. “He is a fantastic athlete and a super human being, and not much surprises you when you have those… combinations working for you.”

Winfield Jr. told reporters he hasn’t returned punts since high school, but when coach Fleck asked if he wanted to take back punts, Winfield Jr. was all in. 

With the plays Winfield Jr. has made this season, there has been talk of having him join the offense in some capacity. Winfield Jr. responded by saying, “I hope so.” He added that he hasn’t played offense since pee-wee football. 

Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca had a laugh when he heard that. 

“I think it is something I’m thinking about, or maybe something I am dreaming about,” Ciarrocca said. “We know how important he is to our defense, but that is why we want him to return punts, so he can get the ball in his hands at least a few times.” 

Last year, Winfield Jr. was expecting a big season after a promising start in his freshman year. However, a hamstring injury kept him out most of the season, allowing him to play in only four games. 

Winfield Jr. said he used that time to adjust his mentality and approach to his game. He said being injured for that long made him realize he could be playing the last play of his life at any time. 

Now, poised to be a star for the next few years at Minnesota, he is ready to compete and contribute to the team. 

“It’s always an amazing feeling when you get a chance to be out on the field with your brothers, playing a sport you love,” Winfield Jr. said. “I’m just out here doing whatever I can to help this team win.”

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