Gophers teammates call QB battle ‘a brotherhood'

PJ Fleck made one thing clear at the conclusion of last Saturday’s Spring Game: The quarterback competition will continue into the fall this year, just as it did last year.

The advantage there is that both Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan got valuable playing experience last season. Both will likely need to play for the Gophers at some point in the fall, regardless of who gets the starting nod.

Annexstad and Morgan each had their share of highlights in the Spring Game. They both also had throws that make Fleck scratch his head. The reality is they’re still young, even if they have a full season of experience.

They’re pushing each other to be better and doing so in a positive way, which is what Fleck cares about most.

“We’re going to need both quarterbacks at some point and they’re both getting better at an equal level,” Fleck said. “You’re not seeing that one guy just jump out and say that’s the guy. They’re both improving.”

Annexstad finished the Spring Game 9-of-15 for 191 yards, a touchdown and an interception. His longest pass was a 47-yard bomb down the middle of the field to Rashod Bateman. Morgan was 11-of-17 for 139 yards, two touchdowns and an interception returned by Thomas Rush for a 71-yard touchdown that Fleck labeled “catastrophic.”

Morgan’s two touchdowns went to Chris Autman-Bell and Brevyn Spann-Ford. Annexstad’s touchdown went for 31 yards to tight end Bryce Witham. Bateman earned offensive MVP honors for the game with six catches for 164 yards. He saw them push each other daily in spring practice.

“They don’t compete against each other. They’re both like brothers, they’re always in the film room running together. I just feel like both have grown a lot together,” Bateman said.

Annexstad got the starting nod as a true freshman last season, and wasn’t the same after suffering injuries to his ankle and midsection. He missed the last five games and still passed for 1,277 yards with nine touchdowns. Morgan took over for the ailing Annexstad and led the Gophers and helped lead Minnesota to wins in four of its last six games, starting with throwing for 302 yards and three touchdowns in a win over Indiana.

Tyler Johnson came back for his senior year after setting single-season records in receiving yards (1,169) and touchdowns (12). He also tied a school record with six 100-yard receiving games, playing with both Annexstad and Morgan.

He sees their competition as something that’s gotten them closer as teammates, not one that would otherwise divide them.

“I see it as like a brotherhood. It’s more of a ‘I’m happy for you’ type of competition than a hate type competition. They both help each other out whenever something goes wrong,” Johnson said. “It’s pretty good watching them just compete. I believe they’ll both lead the team in the right direction and they’ll both go out there and make plays.”

While Annexstad shouldn’t lose his on-field job due to injury, it’s important to note that Morgan was behind center for not only a historic win at Wisconsin, but also the Gophers’ bowl game victory. Morgan completed just nine passes for 124 yards in the first win over the Badgers in 14 years, but didn’t turn the ball over and let the run game take over.

He completed seven passes for 132 yards and two touchdowns, both to Johnson, in the Quick Lane Bowl win over Georgia Tech.

Fleck said after the Spring Game the quarterback competition will continue into the fall.

And don’t forget about freshmen Jacob Clark and Cole Kramer. Clark finished the Spring Game 4-of-8 for 81 yards, including a 62-yard completion to Bateman. Kramer was 2-of-2 passing for 24 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown pass to Spann-Ford.

Fall camp will have a much different feel for Fleck when it comes to the quarterbacks. He won’t be forced to play a freshman that hasn’t taken any in-game snaps. The decision will likely come down to either Annexstad or Morgan, and while they’re still young, they at least gained valuable experience last year. They’ll each have plenty of weapons to get the ball to.