Clay Geary, by his own admission, couldn't stop smiling.
Geary got his first career start in the Gophers' 49-7 victory over Colorado on Saturday and delivered a highlight-reel touchdown catch. Late in the third quarter, he leapt to haul in Tanner Morgan's pinpoint throw and got the needed one foot in bounds and a second for good measure.
"I was ecstatic,'' Geary said of his 8-yard catch. "… You saw my teammates rushing over to me, hugging me like they knew how special that was.''
Suddenly, the 24-year-old wide receiver from Lakeville is an overnight success — in his seventh season on campus.
And the thing is, the Gophers will need Geary to be much more than a feel-good story because their top wide receiver, Chris Autman-Bell, suffered a season-ending lower leg injury against the Buffaloes.
When the Gophers (3-0) visit Michigan State (2-1) on Saturday, the onus shifts to a group of receivers to work together to replace the productivity and reliability of Autman-Bell, their undisputed leader.
"He's the heartbeat of our offense, honestly,'' Geary said. "… No one guy is going to replace Chris.''
Depth will be tested
Gophers coach P.J. Fleck espouses a next-man-up mantra when it comes to injuries, and a good example of that working well happened last year, when Minnesota lost its top four running backs but still had enough depth to run the ball effectively on the way to a 9-4 season.
In their dominant, 3-0 start against overmatched opponents this season, the Gophers have shown the potential for better than a 9-4 finish. Autman-Bell's injury is the first major adversity they've faced, and overcoming his absence will be important in the prove-it game they have Spartan Stadium.
Autman-Bell leads the Gophers with 11 receptions for 214 yards and one TD, but Morgan hasn't had tunnel vision on "Crab'' when passing the ball. Tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford (eight catches, 127 yards, one TD) and wideouts Mike Brown-Stephens (6-107-0), Geary (4-73-1) and Dylan Wright (4-58-1) have been targets in an offense that's averaging only 22.7 attempts per game. Daniel Jackson, last year's second-leading receiver, is back from injury and caught two passes against Colorado.
"You've seen that in the first three games — the distribution of the football and the ability for a lot of these guys to be playmakers,'' Fleck said. "If this happens maybe three or four years ago, maybe it has a different vibe.''
Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has seen Geary fine-tune his game since training camp.
"When he's gotten his opportunities, he's been very consistent,'' Ciarrocca said. "... I love the way he goes about his business.''
Picking his sport
Before he came to the Gophers, Geary was a multisport athlete at Lakeville South, and hockey was one of his passions.
"I played through my sophomore year, starting in third grade, which is a late bloomer in Minnesota,'' he said. "Most kids start when they're 3 or 4 years old, but I loved it.''
Geary became proficient enough on the ice that he had three goals and eight assists as a sophomore forward for Lakeville South in 2013-14, and he still has a page on eliteprospects.com, a popular hockey database. Among his teammates was Nick Swaney, a forward who helped Minnesota Duluth win two national championships.
Hockey, however, lost out to football when Geary made a career decision.
"It got to a point where I kind of had to choose between football and hockey,'' he said. "They're kind of counterintuitive running strides, and it wasn't benefiting me. I felt like I was getting slower.''
Seventh year a charm?
After patiently biding his time with the Gophers, Geary hopes to emerge as a playmaker. It's been a slow and steady climb:
2016: Geary redshirts after accepting a preferred walk-on offer.
2017: Played one play in the season finale.
2018: Played on special teams and had one reception in eight games.
2019: Earned a scholarship, which the Gophers awarded him as a surprise, when he threw out the first pitch at a Twins game. Saw action in 10 games.
2020: Had five receptions in five games in a year that didn't count toward eligibility because of COVID-19.
2021: Missed the season because of a torn anterior cruciate knee ligament suffered in training camp, which led to a seventh year of eligibility from the NCAA.
Fleck invited him to return for his seventh season, and Geary didn't hesitate.
"It was an opportunity I couldn't pass up,'' he said. "I couldn't imagine allowing the injury to dictate how I left my mark on the field.''
Throughout it all, Geary embraced his classwork at the Carlson School of Management. He has degrees in finance, marketing and entrepreneurial management and is working on a graduate program in entrepreneurship.
Now, he'll try to make a bigger impact on the field, aiming to step up when the Gophers need him most — even if he's still pinching himself over that first touchdown.
"It's something that I've been preparing for ever since I got here as a freshman, and to see that finally come to fruition, it just felt good to get that off my shoulders,'' he said.