MINNEAPOLIS (FOX 9) - Zack Annexstad isn't a stranger to injury, but it didn't make having a walking boot on his right foot and moving around on a scooter at Tuesday's Gopher football practice any easier.
In one of the first fall workouts for the University of Minnesota football team last week, Annexstad dropped back to pass and felt a "pop" in his right foot. Gophers football coach PJ Fleck said Saturday it was a serious injury in a non-contact situation. He's having surgery on Wednesday, and is out indefinitely.
What was supposed to be a quarterback competition in fall camp between Annexstad and Tanner Morgan is now anti-climactic. Morgan is the likely opening night starter on Aug. 29 when the Gophers host South Dakota State at TCF Bank Stadium. He's also the lone returning healthy quarterback with playing experience.
As a true freshman, Annexstad beat out Morgan for the job last year before injuring his ankle early in the season. He then hurt his midsection at Nebraska that forced a trip to the hospital and essentially ended his 2018 season.
Now, Annexstad faces a months-long recovery process after having surgery on Wednesday. Several teammates gathered in the training room after Annexstad's injury, being good teammates and offering prayers.
"It's very unfortunate what happened. I love Zack to death. He's an incredible competitor and pushes me to be better every single day," Morgan said Tuesday. "Injuries are a part of the game and you have to respond as a team. Zack has to respond as a player, and we're all behind him. We're all a family, we're all brothers and we're going to do everything we can to support Zack in every situation. It's just part of the game."
Fleck, who was expecting to have to decide between Morgan and Annexstad for an opening night starter, met with both players after the injury.
"I met with Zack, which was an emotional time. These are young men developing and finding their way through life," Fleck said. "Tanner on the other hand, the first person in there after Zack got hurt was Tanner. That's what this team's about, this is all about Forget About Me, I Love You. That's the type of mentality Tanner has, but he obviously understands now here we go, and we'll take off and run from there. I don't think Zack would want it any other way with the position they're in right now."
Annexstad went 3-4 as a starter last season, and was the first true freshman starter at quarterback for the Gophers since Tim Salem in 1980. He was the first walk-on to start as a true freshman since Baker Mayfield did it for Texas Tech in 2013.
He finished the season with 1,277 passing yards and nine touchdowns, and completed 51.8 percent of his passes. Now this year, he's relegated to being an assistant quarterbacks coach.
"Any time there's an injury like that, you're devastated as a player. That's where we come in as teammates, as brothers. Everybody went up and hugged him, he was in tears just because he was so upset that he was injured," senior rush end Carter Coughlin said. "We all went in and hugged him, I've talked to him pretty much every single day since then, checking in on him, seeing what's next, all that kind of stuff. Telling him that I'm praying for him, but that's what's special about football. You've got 120 dudes that are your brothers that can rally around you when stuff happens."
Morgan now likely steps in as the guy, and knows what he has to do to help take the Gophers to the next level. He led Minnesota to a 3-1 record in its last four games, including the program's first win over Wisconsin in 14 years and a win over Georgia Tech in the Quick Lane Bowl.
He finished the season with more than 1,400 yards passing, nine touchdowns and completing better than 58 percent of his passes. He now has the keys to the Gophers' offense, but feels for his ailing teammate.
"That's my brother, that's my teammate. You never want to see your teammate go down. Especially with how hard he works," Morgan said. "It was just terrible to see him in the training room after that."
The other reality for Fleck now is that his two options at the No. 2 quarterback spot have yet to take a collegiate snap. Freshmen Jacob Clark and Cole Kramer will battle for that spot.
Fleck said Tuesday Morgan will get nearly double the reps in fall camp with Annexstad out, but also acknowledged he has to give him a breather, even hold him back. Fleck has known Morgan for five years, recruiting him to Western Michigan and eventually the Gophers. It's also his third year in Fleck's system.
Fleck called Morgan "a winner," noting he took his high school team from a 1-11 record to the state championships in Kentucky.
"That guy think it's a game day every day, but that's the type of mentality you want to have at quarterback," Fleck said.
Morgan said he has no other choice but to treat practice like it's a game. He pointed the New England Patriots with Tom Brady and Julian Edelman, and how they treat practice like it's a live game. They've got Super Bowl rings to show for it.
"You're out there to get better. We have to attack practice with relentless effort every single day," Morgan said.
He'll also have help with Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman, Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith among others all being weapons in the offense this year.
They won't have Annexstad for a while, but they've still got experience with Morgan and a load of talent around him. It can still be a successful year for the Gophers.
"We have elite players across the board, and we have to execute," Morgan said.