Sid Hartman
See more of the story

When safety Antoine Winfield Jr. was suspended with nine other football players by the University of Minnesota in an alleged sexual assault case in late 2016 — and before the university overturned that suspension and reinstated Winfield, along with five other players who were cleared of any wrongdoing — his father, former Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, wanted him to leave the university. His son heavily considered that advice.

“He wanted me to leave, but it was ultimately my decision to stay here,” said Winfield Jr., who made his choice after the Gophers fired Tracy Claeys and hired P.J. Fleck in January of 2017. “It was definitely some thought. I was thinking about it. But we got the new head coach, talked to Coach Fleck and got on board with him.”

Winfield Jr. called his dad “the biggest influence on my career,” and said he has been learning the game from him from an early age.

“There is one home video when I was like 3 or 4 years old,” Winfield Jr. said. “I had a bandanna tied around my head, like [former NFL cornerback] Deion Sanders would have [worn]. I remember playing football with my dad. He was on his knees and I would try to run past him. That’s the earliest I could remember.”

Winfield Jr. said his dad retired from the NFL right after his freshman year of high school in 2013, but he watched him play a lot of games for the Vikings at the Metrodome from 2004 to 2012. He said there’s no doubt his goal is to follow in his father’s footsteps into the league.

“I talk to him a lot,” he said. “I’ll talk to him about how I can get better, because there are still things where I can get better. There’s things I can do. We just talk about the upcoming schedules and the games and how I am doing, how I am feeling, how my body feels, just stuff like that. A lot of tips.”

Freshman star

After his freshman season, Winfield Jr. was viewed as one of the top defensive backs in the Big Ten. He was named Gophers freshman player of the year after recording 52 tackles, one fumble recovery, three pass deflections and one interception in 2016.

He was named third-team All-Big Ten as a sophomore, recording 20 tackles, including a sack, a blocked field goal and two pass deflections in four games before a hamstring injury sidelined him for the season.

“It was a nagging hamstring,” Winfield Jr. said this week. “It first started in August during fall camp where I like popped it doing one of the little punt block drills. I came back and I think I kind of rushed it playing in the first couple games. We played against Maryland and I was backpedaling and I tried to break on a ball and it popped again and I couldn’t play again for the rest of the year.”

Was the rehab difficult?

“It was tough not being able to play due to an injury, but it’s just life lessons that you learn,” he said. “Even though I was hindered by an injury, I was able to still lead the team. I mean, that’s football. Injuries happen.

“It was more tough on me knowing I wasn’t going to be able to play for the rest of the year. But the rehab stuff was fine. I don’t think it was too bad.”

The good news for Fleck and the Gophers is the NCAA granted Winfield Jr. a medical redshirt, meaning he still has three years of eligibility remaining.

Fleck sees a leader

When asked about how Winfield Jr. is recovering, Fleck said all he sees on the field is a star player.

“Antoine Winfield Jr. has done a phenomenal job, he is really improving every single day,” Fleck said. “You can see the development mentally with him, just in terms of bring in the system. He’s so much more comfortable in the system. He’s playing a lot faster.

“We have a lot of young guys in the secondary that we have to develop. I’ll be honest with you: Antoine Winfield Jr. doesn’t have to prove to me every single day that he’s a great player, he doesn’t have to do that. We have some guys who haven’t played that have to prove that. He is doing a great job of leading, doing a great job in terms of his responsibility and growing every single day. I’m really excited for him to have a healthy year.”

There’s no doubt that with no proven quarterback returning and running back Shannon Brooks out for the season because of a lower leg injury, the defense is going to have to lead the Gophers.

Last year, that was the case as well. The Gophers ranked seventh in total defense in the Big Ten at 346.7 yards against per game, compared to 12th in offense as 308.5 yards per game.

Athlon Sports came out recently and said the Gophers were the 73rd-best team in the country. How does Winfield respond to that?

“Any given Saturday, anything can happen. I don’t really go off of rankings,” he said. “I like to wait and see what happens during the actual games in the actual season.

“I think the defense is going to be exciting this year and very fun to watch. I mean, I think we’re going to have a great year.”

After all the challenges Winfield Jr. has faced in the past two years, what does he think now about his decision to remain with the Gophers?

“I am happy I stayed,” he said.

Escobar fine with Sox

Twins infielder Eduardo Escobar is enjoying his best season as a professional player, but said he holds no ill will toward the White Sox, who he is facing this week, for trading him to the Twins in 2012.

“I didn’t play so much consistently [with the White Sox],” Escobar said. “They gave me the opportunity to play as a professional, but it was a different situation. I had some good play over there and I appreciate it so much. I love the organization because they gave me the opportunity to play professional baseball. But it was a nice trade to Minnesota, my new home, I love it here, too.”

Escobar’s numbers against the White Sox probably make them think he holds a grudge. Escobar didn’t hit much in this three-game series with his old team, but overall he has hit .271 with nine homers, 20 doubles, 36 RBI and 39 runs scored in 83 games against Chicago. Those are the most doubles, homers, runs scored and the second-most RBI Escobar has put up against any team in the majors.

Escobar said there’s no doubt he wants to stay with the Twins, often saying he would like to spend the rest of his career here. But he knows that now is not the time to talk about his impending free agency.

“I’m playing hard right now, continuing to do what I can to help the team win, and then we’ll see after the season,” he said.

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. • shartman@startribune.com