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Antoine Winfield Jr. patrolled the Gophers secondary from 2016 to '19, earning All-America honors and displaying a love of football and a flair for the dramatic that helped him become a second-round NFL draft choice.

So, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety had the chance to discuss Tyler Nubin, his Gophers understudy, one could sense the excitement in his words over the phone.

"He's going to have an awesome senior year. He's going to ball out, and he'll be playing up here, against me or with me," Winfield declared.

Beginning with Thursday's season opener against Nebraska at Huntington Bank Stadium, Nubin, a fifth-year senior safety, hopes to bolster his NFL draft stock while helping the Gophers contend for a Big Ten West title. He's on the watch list for the Thorpe (top defensive back), Bednarik (top defensive player) and Nagurski (top defensive player) awards and a couple of preseason All-America teams, but Nubin would rather focus on what lies ahead.

"I don't really hang my hat on anything I've done in the past," he said. "It's always about what I'm going to do next. That's why I love this game."

It's that love of the game that Nubin shares with Winfield, his mentor from his true freshman season in 2019. While Winfield was helping the Gophers finish 11-2 and No. 10 in the final AP poll with plays like his double-overtime interception at Fresno State, Nubin was taking it all in as a backup safety and special teams player. Winfield, now entering his fourth season with the Buccaneers, saw an eager pupil.

"When he came in, I just remember that he loved the game of football. That's the best way to say it. He just loved playing it," Winfield said. "I remember him just like looking up to me and me just showing him the ropes and being there for him. I know that every time he got a chance to play, he was excited and always had a smile on his face. He just played extremely hard."

Different shapes, similar productivity

While Winfield and Nubin both play safety at a high level, they are far from clones. Nubin is a rangy 6-2, 210-pounder; Winfield is a powerful 5-9, 203-pounder. They do, however, share a penchant for making big plays.

Winfield's outstanding 2019 season included 88 tackles and seven of his nine career interceptions. A year earlier, he secured another victory over Fresno State with an end zone interception late in the fourth quarter. Nubin made 55 tackles and intercepted four passes last year, and his game-saving highlight came in a 2021 win at Purdue, when his last-minute interception ended the Boilermakers' potential tying drive.

Gophers coach P.J. Fleck appreciates how Nubin, a St. Charles, Ill., native, has improved steadily in his career to the point where the coach called him "one of the best college football players in the country.'' Nubin took his lumps during the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season, when he admittedly "started a lot and failed a lot," before breaking through in 2021, when he was named defensive MVP in the bowl victory over West Virginia.

"Tyler Nubin is our X factor. He can do a lot,'' Fleck said Friday during his weekly radio show. "We haven't had an X factor like that since Antoine Winfield Jr.''

Said Nubin, "I honestly look back, and I really am thankful for that time — just because I learned so much that year."

Gophers quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis agrees with his coach's lofty assessment because he sees Nubin's talent across the line of scrimmage every practice.

"Not only his freak athletic ability, but he's one of the smartest people on the field," Kaliakmanis said. "He knows what I'm going to do. And going against somebody who's that freaky, and he studies so much that he knows our offense. I mean, he knows our playbook. That's just unheard of."

Becoming a leader

The Gophers defense lost leaders like linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin and safety Jordan Howden to graduation, and Nubin has stepped forward to fill a leadership role. It's something he takes with pride and does so by embracing hard work.

"Our confidence comes from our hard work," he said. "This year more than ever, we have guys that are doing the unrequired work."

Winfield, who visited the Gophers during spring practice, noticed the nuances of Nubin's approach, both on and off the field.

"It was kind of strange seeing him from being a freshman to where he is now," Winfield said. "It's awesome to see where he's at. He's really the leader of that team."

Next spring, Nubin will try to join a growing list of Gophers defensive backs who were drafted by NFL teams. Over the past four drafts, Minnesota has had four such players selected: Winfield (45th overall in 2020), cornerback Benjamin St-Juste (third round, Washington, 2021), Howden (fifth round, New Orleans, 2023) and cornerback Terell Smith (fifth round, Chicago, 2023).

"Yeah, that is a huge motivation," said Nubin, who had a third-round grade by the website NFL Draft Buzz in May. "I'm proud of my brothers — the guys that have been in this building that paved the way and showed the blueprint for how to get there. Those are the guys that I like to emulate every single day in how I work and how I approach the game."