Zack Annexstad gave off a calm, collected vibe upon being informed he’d won the Minnesota starting quarterback job.
“(Coach P.J. Fleck) told me and I just said, ‘All right, yes, sir,’ ” Annexstad said in an ESPN interview in August. “I don’t know how he thought I was going to react, but I was pretty excited on the inside.”
In a normal situation, a true freshman, walk-on quarterback might spend a season or two on the sidelines adapting to the speed and physicality of Big Ten football before being thrown into competition.
For Annexstad, however, the stars aligned early. Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft both saw time under center for the Gophers in 2017, but Rhoda graduated and Croft transferred to Tennessee State, allowing Annexstad, a Norseland, Minnesota, native who graduated from IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, an opportunity to compete with redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan for the starting job.
Annexstad, who has thrown for 924 yards, eight touchdowns and five interceptions in five starts, is believed to be just the second walk-on freshman to start a season opener, joining Baker Mayfield, who did the same at Texas Tech in 2013. Fleck acknowledged in August the “enormous challenge” Annexstad faces starting as a true freshman.
“I said now everybody’s going to think you’re the answer and there’s pressure and expectation, except he’s a true freshman that we are going to develop to become something,” Fleck told reporters. “He’s going to make those mistakes, but I trust him mentally.”
Those mistakes have happened as expected — Annexstad threw all five interceptions in the Gophers’ two most recent games, losses to Maryland and Iowa — but teammates have seen a transformation since his Aug. 30 debut against New Mexico.
The most noticeable adjustment, fifth-year senior center Jared Weyler said, is Annexstad's poise.
"It’s something I’ve never seen, quite honestly, from a freshman is that confidence to come in and believe in themselves that they can compete at this level," Weyler said. "He comes to work every day, he continues to get better and he continues to take coaching and he wants to get better."
Junior receiver Tyler Johnson, who leads the Golden Gophers with 402 receiving yards and six touchdowns, said he's seen "a lot of growth" from Annexstad that stems from his toughness and ability to recover from mistakes.
"He can play through adversity. Even when he goes out there and let’s say he makes a mistake or something, the next possession he can go out there and come back and forget about the last possession," Johnson said. "We go over there and talk on the sideline and (the message is), ‘We’re here for you. Keep playing. Just give it your all, we're right here with you."