Under the lights at TCF Bank Stadium during an August open practice, Antoine Winfield Jr. picked off quarterback Tanner Morgan’s floated toss to receiver Tyler Johnson near the end zone, a game-saving maneuver in that two-minute drill.
So Morgan knows exactly how Fresno State quarterback Jorge Reyna felt late Saturday/early Sunday, when Winfield came out of nowhere in double overtime to seize Reyna’s pass and secure a 38-35 victory for the Gophers.
Even just recalling the many instances through spring practice and training camp where Winfield has spoiled Morgan’s performance had the quarterback at a loss for words, just shrugging in exasperation.
“ ‘Here we go again,’ ” Morgan said of what went through his mind watching the safety’s interception from the sideline. “… As soon as the ball’s floating in the air, and you see Tweeze break back on the ball, I think everyone on the sideline knew what was going to happen. He’s going to make a play.”
“Tweeze” — or “Lil’ Tweeze” — is a nickname his father, Antoine Sr., gave him, echoing his own nickname from his NFL playing days. Winfield started studying his dad’s cornerback game film at a young age, which helped cultivate an ability to make instinctual plays.
Winfield said the Gophers (2-0) were in a Cover-2 zone on Fresno State’s final play, meaning both safeties were playing deep. The Bulldogs tried luring Winfield away from their intended target by sending another receiver on a post route.
As he was backpedaling, the redshirt sophomore saw fellow safety Jordan Howden take that post-route receiver, leaving Winfield free to turn toward the sideline and “high point” the ball.
“In the corner of my eye, I see a receiver screaming down the field. So I just knew that the ball was going there,” Winfield said. “And that’s just when I got over there as fast as I could.”
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said that play, basically a tight end delay, was difficult to defend because everyone was already downfield with their responsibilities. But Winfield’s ability to riff on the fly is part of what makes him “the best player on defense” and “one of the best athletes in college football,” according to Fleck.
Highlight-reel moves are pretty much synonymous with Winfield now. He made a similar jaw-dropping interception in the end zone to preserve a victory against Fresno State last season. But what makes that sixth-sense quality even more impressive, Fleck said, is how Winfield manages it despite the struggles he’s faced.
The past two seasons, Winfield has played in only four games before injuries — hamstring in 2017 and left foot in 2018 — ended his season early.
“There are a lot of people that would have quit football by now,” Fleck said. “You ask him about what has happened to him in the past, and he says, ‘That’s football. That is what happens when you play football. Just happened to me a few times.’ ”
Morgan, though, is just relieved Winfield now has opponent QBs to bait and terrorize with covering ground in a split second. But Morgan is thankful for Winfield teaching him ways to improve as a quarterback, showing him firsthand how vigilance is key.
“He made me get a lot better at that, of using my eyes, especially if I’m taking a vertical shot,” Morgan said. “Whether it be a pump fake or whatever. Because as soon as you look over there — and his instincts are so incredible, that he knows what’s going to happen before you even trigger to throw the ball.”