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‘Chip on Shoulder’ May Define U QB

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August 26, 2018

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A year ago most University of Minnesota football fans had never heard of Zack Annexstad. Even six months ago he was hardly a household name in the state of Minnesota. But Thursday night when the Golden Gophers offense takes the field he will be the focus of fans sitting in TCF Bank Stadium and in front of TV sets.

Annexstad is a true freshman and not on scholarship. He plays the most demanding of positions in Big Ten football—less than a year after being in high school. Because of all that he is one of the best debut stories in recent Gopher football history.

Fleck chose Annexstad over redshirt freshman and scholarship quarterback Tanner Morgan. The coach said last week he was making a commitment to Annexstad and his intentions aren’t to alternate the quarterbacks during games.

News that Fleck named the Norseland, Minnesota native the starter got the attention of both local and national media. The decision surprised a lot of people outside the program but not Kevin Wright. “No, not at all,” said the IMG Academy football coach from Bradenton, Florida. “He’s a tremendous leader.”

Wright is all-in on Annexstad and his brother Brock, a redshirt sophomore wide receiver for the Gophers who could play Thursday night when Minnesota opens its season against New Mexico State. Brock is a former walk-on who Fleck put on scholarship this month.

“You’ve got two walk-on kids that all they ever dreamed about was going to the University of Minnesota, who are able to make that dream come true,” Wright told Sports Headliners. “It’s exciting for us (at IMG) and definitely we’re very excited for those guys and their family.”

It was during the 2015-2016 school year that Wright, who coaches one of the elite prep football programs in the country, first met the Annexstad family—including Brock and Zack’s mom and dad. They talked in the lobby of a hotel in San Antonio, Texas and the conversation impressed Wright.

“This is a tough (competitive) place (IMG football),” Wright said. “They (Brock and Zack) understood what they were getting into. They understood they would have to leave home and go hundreds of miles to try and even compete and get on the field. I think it was something that drove them, excited them, and something they were looking for. That type of challenge.”

Zack Annexstad photo courtesy of Minnesota Athletic Communications.

In Zack’s first season at IMG, the summer and fall of 2016, he showed Wright he could contribute. The junior competed for playing time behind senior Kellen Mond and even started one game. Mond was a true freshman at Texas A&M last season and started most of the Aggies’ games.

In early 2017 another talented quarterback arrived in Bradenton to compete with Annexstad. Artur Sitkowski, from New Jersey, earned the starting job at IMG early in the season. “I don’t know that it was a head and shoulders decision (between the two),” Wright said. “We always knew that Zack could play. He handled it (the decision) just like a pro. He could have pouted, could have had a negative reaction. Just decided he was going to battle (to get on the field).“

Sitkowski was a four-star recruit as a prep. The University of Miami wanted him before he flipped his commitment to home-state Rutgers. Now the true freshman has won the starting quarterback job for the Scarlet Knights.

The high profile Sitkowski is also the guy Annexstad eventually beat out for the quarterback job at IMG. Early in the 2017 season the offense wasn’t as efficient as Wright wanted. “We just felt like we needed a little bit of a spark,” Wright said. “I think the third game or so of the season, (we) put Zack in and then he remained the starter the rest of the way.”

It wasn’t just any season, either. Playing a schedule considered perhaps the most demanding in all of high school football, Annexstad helped lead the Ascenders to an undefeated season. In 2017 he threw for 940 yards and 10 touchdowns.

As a freshman Annexstad isn’t allowed yet to talk with the media, but by now you get the idea the young quarterback responds to challenges in a big way. His former coach says Annexstad embraces the underdog role and plays with a “chip on his shoulder.”

Wright likens that characteristic to Baker Mayfield, the former walk-on quarterback at Oklahoma who went on to win the Heisman Trophy. “You need somebody like that who has that chip, who has that confidence,” Wright said. “Not arrogance, but has that confidence that they can go in and get the job done.

“That’s really, ultimately, I think what you’re looking for when you’re trying to build a program. You’re trying to look for a guy that first and foremost is a leader and that other kids buy into. At our place that was very, very obvious that everybody bought into Zack. He was a guy that could make other people better around him. He was a kid that everybody liked.”

IMG offensive linemen Curtis Dunlap Jr. and Daniel Faalele liked Annexstad enough that he influenced their decisions on where to play college football. Dunlap was committed to the University of Florida before he switched to the Gophers. Faalele’s last three recruiting visits were to Alabama, Georgia and LSU.

“When you’ve got the ability to bring those guys with you and bring those guys in, now you’re able to start to build,” Wright said. “You need that guy (like Annexstad). You just gotta go out and perform now.”

Fleck was 2-7 in Big Ten games during his first season as Minnesota’s coach last season. From day one he has talked about culture and leadership at a program that hasn’t won a Big Ten championship since 1967. Part of his quest to find leadership led him to Annexstad who was labeled by 247Sports as a three-star recruit at IMG, a school expected to have three of its alums (add in Shea Patterson at Michigan) starting for Big Ten teams this fall. Annexstad had a few Division I scholarship offers but he wanted so badly to play for the Gophers he was willing to head north as a walk-on—a status likely to change early next year.

What do the Gophers have in the quarterback who beat out Morgan and in spring practice helped discourage junior college transfer Vic Viramontes from staying at Minnesota? The 6-foot-3, 215-pound Annexstad is described as a pro-style quarterback, known for his throwing accuracy, and with the physical strength to run and make a gain out of a broken play.

Annexstad has been at Minnesota since January. He has become, as coaches like to say, “bigger, stronger and faster.” Yet ask Wright about Annexstad’s college future and those aren’t the words that initially come out of his mouth.

“I think first and foremost…he has the potential to be known as a guy that’s a winner,” Wright said. “…Every college coach in America is looking for that guy that can win football games for him. They can find a way. I think he’ll be known as that guy.

“If they (the Gophers) can win seven or eight games, get to a bowl, that’s a huge step for them and the program. …There are a lot of guys that played in the NFL that are similar to Zack in that they didn’t have a lot of accolades coming out of high school necessarily. They weren’t really highly recruited, but that internal motivation to work, to prove people wrong, to be the best you can be, that’s something you can’t gauge. The mark he leaves is obviously yet to be seen.”

It will be just a beginning but Annexstad will leave a mark Thursday night.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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