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Gophers’ QB Zack Annexstad enters part three of his underdog story

Zack Annexstad was a new man on campus.

A confident, charismatic quarterback arrived to IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL. following his sophomore season at Mankato West High School in Minnesota. After attending a football camp at IMG, he and his brother, Brock, decided to pack their bags and attend high school in Florida.

A year later, Zack Annexstad, a 6-foot-3 quarterback was set to make his first start at one of the top football academies in the country. The opponent, Grayson High School, was on the horizon. Annexstad, a junior, earned the Week 1 starting job over senior Kellen Mond, the current starting quarterback at Texas A&M.

Everything was in motion. Annexstad was on the big stage as a junior, with his brother, Brock, playing wide receiver alongside him. However, it all quickly came to a screeching halt. Zack tossed just a few passes before heading to sideline and serving as a backup to Kellen Mond. Annexstad never started another game in 2016.

“I think he kind of realized that you can just kind of control what you can control and you take it one play at a time and you can’t really get too up or too down,” IMG quarterbacks coach Adam Behrends said. “I think he would probably even tell you that, at first, his junior year when he was here, he was probably way too amped up for that game.”

Little did Annexstad know, this was part one of a three-part underdog series. He spent the entire offseason laboring over the fundamentals in hopes he would claim the starting job in 2017. He faced stiff competition from Artur Sitkowski, the current starting quarterback at Rutgers. Behrends watched Annexstad improve throughout the offseason, but once again, he fell short of the starting job.

“I saw a culmination of a whole junior year, his whole offseason, going through the spring and getting better with the team, getting better himself,” Behrends said. “And then all of a sudden, you go into the first week and you end up not starting, that could kind of be like letting the air out of the balloon, kind of burst your bubble a little bit.”

At the time, current IMG Academy quarterbacks coach Adam Behrends was coaching the tight ends. A disappointed Annexstad approached Behrends after the game, upset he was not the starting quarterback.

“I just let him know — I don’t know know when you’re going to get an opportunity,” Behrends said. “It might not be until you’re a junior in college, but you’ll have another opportunity to start a football game somewhere. All you can do is prepare on the way. If you’re just going to be really upset and you pout, and you stop working hard, and you stop being you, it’s not going to change the outcome. So you might as well have a smile on your face and just keep doing what you’ve been doing.”

Behrends was waiting to see how the young quarterback would respond to the adversity. The next Monday, the coach said Annexstad showed up to practice with a smile on his face and worked hard to improve as a player.

“He came up to me and said, ‘I’m not going to change anything’,” Behrends said. “And I was like, ‘you’re the man.’”

Instead of letting the air get sucked out of a balloon, Annexstad kept his head down and didn’t quit working. At the midway point of the season, IMG coaches eventually decided to make a change at quarterback – it was finally Zack Annexstad’s opportunity. The young quarterback took the chance and ran with it, rallying his teammates to an undefeated season. The one thing that stood out to Behrends and the coaches: Annexstad’s leadership skills.

“I would say that was the biggest thing that separated him is just kind of the way the kids were drawn toward him and willing to go out there for him and the way he could lead and orchestrate everything,” Behrend said.

After throwing for 940 yards and ten touchdowns to close the season, Annexstad received FBS scholarship offers from Cincinnati, Southern Mississippi, Illinois and Pittsburgh, among others. However, he earned a preferred walk-on opportunity at Minnesota. His brother, Brock, already played receiver for the Gophers and his father, Scott, played guard for the Gophers in the early 1980s. Deep down, Behrends knew Zack’s dream school was Minnesota. He also understood how hard head coach P.J. Fleck was recruiting Annexstad.

“Just watching how [Fleck] went after the kids down here and even Zack,” Behrends said. “Zack knew he was going to walk-on there. [P.J.] went after Zack like he was an 18-star kid with every scholarship offer in the world.”

Roughly a week before signing day, Annexstad received an offer from Pittsburgh. Behrends sat down with the quarterback for the next four days and had almost the same conversation. It’s when the coach knew Annexstad wanted to walk-on at Minnesota.

Eventually, Annexstad told Behrends, “I like my fit up at Minnesota. I’ve got friends that are going to go up there now, my brother is there. I want to play football with him…my parents are going to be close to me and I think that’s the best fit.’”

Behrends responded, “if you think that’s the best fit, then I think that’s the best fit, go do your thing.”

And he did just that. Annexstad joined the Gophers and brought two of his closest protectors with him. The quarterback helped convince four-star offensive linemen Daniel Faalele and Curtis Dunlap Jr. to join him at Minnesota. It helped complete two of the biggest commitments Minnesota has landed in recent memory.

“Kids really gravitate to him,” Behrends said. “Minnesota does a really good job recruiting, but for anybody that doesn’t think that Zack didn’t play a part in it, that would be kind of silly.”

At Minnesota, Annexstad continued improving during spring practices and started to gain ground in the race for the starting job. During a break between practice sessions in May, Annexstad traveled to Florida and spent time working with Behrends at IMG. It’s when the coach noticed the game was starting to slow down for the young quarterback. He was identifying his own mistakes calmly and correcting things without step-by-step guidance.

“His arm strength has gotten a lot better. That’s something you can see right away after graduating early and being there in the spring, just the size he put on,” Behrends said. “I’d give him a little feedback, he’d be like, ‘yeah, they’ve been working with me up there, I definitely feel that. Let me try that again, I’ll get it.’ It was a lot more even-keeled.”

Annexstad eventually returned to Minnesota and continued the competition with redshirt freshman quarterback Tanner Morgan. He again was trying to prove he could accomplish something only one person had ever done before – start Week 1 as a true freshman walk-on.

The week prior to Minnesota’s season-opener with New Mexico State, head coach P.J. Fleck named Annexstad the starter. He became just the second quarterback in FBS History to start Week 1 as a true freshman walk-on. The only other player to do that was Baker Mayfield.

A few hours before the press conference, Fleck pulled Annexstad into his office to inform him he was the starter. Annexstad didn’t even know how to react.

“He looked at me and he goes, ‘All right.’ I was like, ‘Let me repeat myself,’ ” Fleck said. “He smiled a little bit, and he even told me, ‘Coach, listen. I’ve been on the bottom, I’ve been on the top. I’ve been on the bottom more than I have at the top because I’ve always had to work my way up.…I’m very humbled to have the job.’ ”

Annexstad has led Minnesota to a pair of wins to open the season. Most recently, a third down scramble and completion on 3rd-and-9 helped lead the team to a 21-14 win over Fresno State. The quarterback’s poise and confidence has helped an offense desperately searching for an improved passing attack.

Adam Behrends has watched both Annexstad brothers achieve early success at Minnesota. Zack earned the starting job for Gophers, while Brock recently earned a full-ride scholarship from the program.

“Brock was a great pick-up too, he helped us a lot,” Behrends said. “He was a super reliable receiver…whatever you ask him do, he’ll do it really well. He blocks hard, he was really good on special teams for us. You don’t need to have much five-star war daddies to just win football games and get stuff done. It’s really helpful to have those guys that are more like role players, if you will.”

At the end of the day, the quarterbacks coach is not surprised the duo has overcome adversity while playing the game they love. Although the road wasn’t easy, Behrends, a former defensive back at Minnesota State, Mankato, never questioned the brothers’ passion for football. He saw it at a young age.

Growing up a few miles from the Mankato campus, the Annexstad brothers were once ball boys for the Mavericks’ football program when Behrends played there. It didn’t click in the coach’s mind until the duo officially arrived on the IMG campus. That’s when the moment came back to him.

“I remember a really cold football game,” Behrends said. “We had chicken broth on the sideline and the big winter coats out and everything….I remember two little blonde-haired kids running around and I remember specifically looking at them and thinking, ‘man, these two must freaking love football because it is so cold out here, I don’t know how they can enjoy this at all.’”

From the IMG Academy practice fields, to Saturday afternoons at TCF Bank Stadium, the love for football was always there. Little did Behrends know, years later, he would help the young duo pursue a passion they once shared together on the Blakeslee Stadium turf.

Now, just like everyone else, he’s waiting to see what’s next for IMG Academy’s dynamic duo.


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