Antoine Winfield Jr.’s return adds playmaking ability to Gophers’ defense

The redshirt sophomore has been limited to just eight games over the past two seasons.

Defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. celebrates after a tackle on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn. The Gophers beat Buffalo 17 to 7.

Ellen Schmidt

Defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. celebrates after a tackle on Thursday, Aug. 31, 2017 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minn. The Gophers beat Buffalo 17 to 7.

Nick Jungheim

In week two of the 2018 season, the Gophers found themselves clinging to a 21-14 lead over Fresno State with 1:24 left. Standing four yards away from the tying touchdown, the Bulldogs reached into their bag of tricks, handing the ball off to running back Josh Hokit, who then threw a pass to tight end Jared Rice.

As Hokit released the ball, five yards separated Rice from the nearest defender, redshirt sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr. Winfield managed to track back, turning over his shoulder like an outfielder running down a fly ball. He then leapt up, reached with one hand, and intercepted the ball with his back parallel to the ground and somehow managed to land with his right foot in bounds.

“I just remember seeing the running back get the ball,” Winfield said after that game. “And I remember seeing his hands go up like he was going to pass it. I saw the tight end leak out behind me. I just turned around, found the ball, went up and high-pointed it.”

At that time, it was clear that Winfield had returned to full health after missing the final eight games of 2017 with an injury he sustained against Maryland that year. His explosive playmaking ability in 2018 indicated he was back at full health.

In addition to that interception, Winfield also brought the TCF Bank Stadium crowd to its feet in week one against New Mexico State with a 76-yard punt return touchdown, during which he pin-balled off several defenders on his way to the end zone.

After amassing 17 tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery over the first three games of 2018, Winfield looked destined for an All-Big Ten-level season. In week four, however, Winfield injured his left foot, against Maryland, causing him to miss the rest of the year.

“I was devastated at first,” Winfield said. “I was off to a hot start for the season. It hurt but I knew I could come back better, stronger from it because I got hurt the previous year and I came back.”

In the three full games with Winfield last season, Minnesota allowed an average of 9 points and 256 yards. Over the next six games, the Gophers’ defense conceded over 43 points and 507 yards per contest on average.

Following that stretch, the defense improved when Joe Rossi replaced Robb Smith as defensive coordinator. After not having his star safety last season, Rossi is excited to have Winfield’s high motor back.

“He’s one of the best in the country,” Rossi said. “The thing a lot of people don’t get to see is how hard he practices. I think that’s something that really stands out to people when you watch him.”

Winfield recorded four tackles and broke up one pass in his return to action against South Dakota State on Aug. 29. Head coach P.J. Fleck said that while he could tell Winfield was excited to get back on the field, he looked a little too eager to make the same highlight reel plays as last season.

“I thought he almost, at times, wanted to over-perform,” Fleck said. “He wanted to do everyone else’s jobs at times, because he’s that good.”

On Saturday, Winfield and the Gophers will get another chance to knock off a tough Fresno State team, this time in California. One year removed from his game-saving interception, Winfield is excited to play them again.

“Obviously, they’re a great team,” Winfield said, “It will just be interesting seeing how they are this year.”