Winfield May Return Punts for Gophers
Enjoy a Wednesday notes column.
Safety and post-season Big Ten awards candidate Antoine Winfield Jr. was fielding punts at a recent Gophers football scrimmage open to the public and media. Winfield, who missed eight games last season because of injury, is part of an “experiment” by head coach P.J. Fleck to determine who will have the punt return job when the season opens August 30 at home against New Mexico State.
Fleck is also considering redshirt senior cornerback Antonio Shenault and true freshman wide receiver Rashod Bateman. Winfield is a redshirt sophomore who probably is Minnesota’s best player regardless of position.
No doubt Fleck wants an athlete with sure hands to become his No. 1 punt returner. He will welcome a playmaker at the position who can advance the ball up field when few could. The Gophers, who struggled to score points last season and could again in 2018, didn’t return a punt for a touchdown last season, or the year before.
Shenault shared punt returning last season with the departed Drew Hmielewski. Shenault had four returns for 11 yards. Winfield hasn’t returned punts in college, while Bateman has yet to step on the field for a college game.
Bateman made some difficult catches at last week’s scrimmage open to the public and media. “He’s like that everyday,” Fleck said.
A four-star recruit in high school, per 247/Sports and Rivals, the Tifton, Georgia native has a reputation for speed, explosiveness and big plays. National power Georgia tried to persuade Bateman to change his mind about becoming a Gopher.
The Gophers’ football schedule avoids three of the five Big Ten teams Sports Illustrated has in its top 15 teams in the nation. The S.I. college football issue out last week ranks Wisconsin No. 3 (predicting a national playoff spot), Penn State No. 7, Ohio State No. 9, Michigan State No. 11 and Michigan No. 15. Minnesota plays at Ohio State October 13 and closes the regular season at Wisconsin November 24.
Eden Prairie, defending 6A football state champs, started two-a-day practices this week along with other high school teams in the state. Head coach Mike Grant minimizes tackling in preparation for the season. His best players might only participate in contact for a series or two in a scrimmage before the Eagles open the season against Eastview on August 30. Excluded from any contact will be starting quarterback Cole Kramer.
Grant has won 11 titles at Eden Prairie since starting there in 1992. He told Sports Headliners the Eagles might have won five more if not for injuries.
A pro football source said the Vikings reached out to 59-year-old Mike Tice about becoming offensive line coach after the unexpected death this summer of Tony Sparano. Tice, a former Vikings head coach with a 33-34 record from 2001-2005, is retired from coaching after most recently working as offensive line coach for the Raiders.
Viking veteran Kai Forbath has a history of inconsistency on extra points. New rookie kicker Daniel Carlson will give Forbath a lot of competition for the job of converting extra points and field goals, and kicking off. This could be the most intense player competition in training camp.
Carlson was 4-for-4 on extra points and 2-for-2 on field goals last Saturday night in the Viking opening preseason win in Denver against the Broncos.
Another battle is to see who emerges as the No. 3 wide receiver. Laquon Treadwell, a No. 1 draft selection in 2016, hasn’t caught a touchdown pass in two seasons. In Saturday’s preseason opener he had one reception for three yards. Rookie Brandon Zylstra, injured and not able to play last Saturday, could not only make the roster but perhaps emerge as the No. 3 WR this season.
Legacy statistic for Lindsay Whalen who is retiring from the Lynx after this season: Since 2011 the club’s record is 60-3 when she has seven assists or more.
Former Gopher basketball player Larry Overskei, a three-year starter from 1967-1970, is retired after 47 years of coaching including most recently the boys golf team at Coon Rapids High School. During Overskei’s career he also coached basketball and one of his players was now Baseball Hall of Famer Jack Morris. At Highland Park High Morris helped the team win two St. Paul conference titles.
“Quick as a cat, tenacious, and a wonderful shooter,” Overskei wrote about Morris via email.
It will be interesting to see how center fielder Jake Cave of the Twins hits the rest of the season. Since being recalled on June 25, he is batting .377 (20-for-53) at Target Field. He has a hit in 18 of 22 games at home this season, batting .358 (24-for-67) with 18 RBI.
The 25-year-old Cave enters today’s home game against the Pirates hitting .273 with four home runs and 22 RBI in 139 at bats.