Before the Gophers’ 48-10 victory over New Mexico State on Thursday, coach P.J. Fleck said there was only one way to make sure quarterback Zack Annexstad — the first Gophers true freshman to start an opener since Tim Salem in 1980 — had a great start to his career.
“We just want to be better as a whole, as an offense, defense, special teams,” Fleck said. “It’s not just put on one guy.”
That’s exactly what Fleck saw against the Aggies, pointing out that several Gophers veterans turned what was a narrow 14-10 lead with 11 minutes left in the second quarter into a blowout.
Sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr. made the play of the game with a sensational punt return for 76 yards and a tide-turning touchdown that pushed the lead to 28-10. On top of that, junior linebacker Thomas Barber had an interception in the first quarter to set up the Gophers’ first touchdown. And then there was a blocked punt by junior defensive lineman Sam Renner that was recovered by junior linebacker Carter Coughlin early in the second half.
“They played a huge part in the game and we need our older players to dominate,” Fleck said. “They have to lead the way. They have to show these young guys how to play Gopher football.
“I thought they did that. I was very proud of those guys. Especially Carter Coughlin, [senior linebacker] Blake Cashman [who had eight tackles and a sack], Thomas Barber. I thought they played incredibly hard tonight. Antoine Winfield, it’s nice to have him back on the field, isn’t it?”
Fleck said during training camp that Winfield was back to full health after a hamstring injury led to him being granted a medical redshirt for last season, and that he was going to be one of the biggest pieces to the Gophers’ success this year. That was evident Thursday.
This was the kind of team effort Fleck wanted for Annexstad in his first start. And on top of that, the offensive line allowed zero sacks on 34 pass attempts and helped the running game pile up 295 yards on 47 carries.
That included senior Rodney Smith dominating with 153 yards on 24 carries and freshman Mohamed Ibrahim gaining 101, including a 74-yard run in the fourth quarter.
“It’s a work in progress,” Fleck said of the line. “It is always developing. [Offensive line coach] Brian Callahan is doing a great job. We have to continue to play better together, collectively. Offensive line is not about how good you are as an individual, it’s about how well you all play as one big amoeba, moving together. I think we’ll get there.”
When you look at the final score, it’s easy to see why Fleck was so pleased after the game. The Gophers won the yardage battle 522-271, and Annexstad completed 16 of 33 passes for 220 yards and two touchdowns, with his passing yardage just short of Conor Rhoda’s single-game high last year of 229 yards against Maryland.
There’s no doubt there will be a lot of growing pains for the young Gophers. But Fleck knew if he got a balanced effort from the rest of his team against an Aggies squad on short rest, it would make the home opener a lot easier on Annexstad.
Sloter intrigues at QB
Kyle Sloter’s preseason play indicates he might have a future as a Vikings quarterback, even after the team signed star Kirk Cousins and traded for backup Trevor Siemian in the offseason.
Sloter was a practice squad signee last September after starting his career with the Broncos. The Vikings inked him to a three-year, $1.665 million deal later that month, and he continues to impress whenever he gets a chance to play.
Heading into their contest with the Titans on Thursday night, Sloter had competed 30 of 41 passes for 236 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions over the team’s first three preseason games. His 111.4 quarterback rating was the ninth highest of any NFL quarterback in the preseason.
He was just as steady Thursday night in the Vikings’ 13-3 victory. He completed 11 of 15 passes for 130 yards and the lone touchdown of the game on a 24-yard pass to Brandon Zylstra.
Sloter played only one season at quarterback in college. That was at Northern Colorado in 2016 after he transferred from Southern Mississippi, where then-coach Todd Monken — now the offensive coordinator of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — had moved him to wide receiver.
“Originally I didn’t play very much and went into my senior year as the backup quarterback [at Northern Colorado],” Sloter said. “The starter got hurt [in] game one and I was able to come in and play well enough to get a shot at the NFL. It was a good situation for me.”
Sloter threw for 2,656 yards, 29 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Northern Colorado quarterbacks coach Steve Fairchild, who spent several years coaching in the NFL, got his name in front of some pro teams.
Now that he is in his second season with the Vikings, Sloter was asked if he is comfortable as the third quarterback on the depth chart.
“I think everybody in this league wants to be the starter,” Sloter said. “I think anybody that told you they wanted to be the third-string quarterback would be lying to you. But I am young  and I know that is the road and the path I have to go on in order to get to where I eventually want to be — which is a starter in this league. But I am really happy with where I’m at right now, happy to be a Viking.”
Has he enjoyed working with Cousins so far?
“A ton, he is a great guy,” Sloter said. “He came in here and he’s very businesslike, but he knows how to have fun. I have learned a ton between how to use the cadence to where his eyes are during a given play, how he reads a defense and really, how he carries himself on and off the field. He has been a really good mentor for me.”
There’s a good chance Sloter will make the 53-man roster because of his comfort with the Vikings’ system and his ability to perform whenever called upon. He’s the longest-tenured Vikings quarterback.
“I think chemistry is huge,” he said. “You come in here and, especially for quarterbacks and receivers, to have that chemistry and know where they’re going to break and know how they’re going to run their routes. Being here last year really helped me getting to know the guys and, like you said, building that chemistry with them.”
Sid Hartman can be heard on WCCO AM-830 at 8:40 a.m. Monday and Friday, 2 p.m. Friday and 10:30 a.m. Sunday. • firstname.lastname@example.org