Gophers sophomore receiver Chris Autman-Bell went from bummed to beaming over the past month.
“A couple of days in fall camp, I was down about not getting plays or not making plays,” Autman-Bell admitted.
Teammates Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, who line up next to Autman-Bell in the U’s top three-receiver sets, told him “your time will come.”
That time was Saturday. Autman-Bell went from valley to peak with a stunning 20-yard touchdown catch in the final minute of the fourth quarter. He barely got his left foot inside the corner of the end zone, and with a perfect pass from Tanner Morgan, the play helped propel the Gophers to a 38-35 double-overtime victory at Fresno State.
“When I first saw it, I didn’t know he had his foot down,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Monday. “I just saw the pylon knock over. I thought his knee hit the pylon and there is no way. … His foot (was) just perfectly there.”
Beyond the impact of what Autman-Bell’s sensational grab meant to the Gophers’ 2-0 start this season is what it could mean for the development of the U’s offense.
In both of the first two games, Fresno State and South Dakota State paid extra attention, including double teams, to Tyler Johnson, the U’s all-Big Ten selection in 2018. Johnson was limited to two receptions for 27 yards (and two drops) in the season opener and four grabs for 71 yards last week.
After setting the U’s single-season record with 12 touchdowns in 2018, Johnson is still scoreless this year.
The Gophers want opposing defenses to feel like it’s a pick-your-poison scenario with how they cover receivers. When Johnson has been covered, Bateman has had big days to lead the receiver corps. He had five receptions for 132 yards and a touchdown against South Dakota State and then seven grabs for 105 yards and another TD against Fresno State.
Autman-Bell has had the third-most production in both games: two grabs for 17 yards vs. the Jackrabbits and two receptions for 29 against the Bulldogs. Saturday’s touchdown was the first of his career.
During Saturday’s game, Fleck felt Bateman, in addition to Johnson, received more attention from the Bulldogs.
On the pivotal play, Johnson was in the slot and a safety was over the top of him. The safety didn’t pay any attention to Autman-Bell out wide on the same side of the field. Bateman, as the lone receiver on the wide side of the field, had the attention of a cornerback and safety.
But the Gophers aren’t acquiescing to Johnson being double covered. Against Fresno State, they moved him into the slot, put him in motion and even gave him a carry on a jet sweep. That run, however, was snuffed out for a loss of one yard.
“We will continue to move him around,” Fleck said. “Tyler Johnson is always going to have touches.”
A week ago, Fleck said the game plan against SDSU was “vanilla,” and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarricca said he felt like he would have preferred even less for an opening game. Fleck alluded to it staying very similar against Fresno State.
“What we want to be able to do early in the year … is what we feel is comfortable right now for everybody to do,” Fleck said. “With keeping it as simple as we possibly can.”
Against Fresno State, that included a hefty dose of inside zone runs, which have been and will continue to be a staple of the Gophers’ offense. As Morgan has gone 6-2 as a starter since last October, Minnesota has had more time of possession in all eight games. Running the ball does that.
“We did what we wanted to do and we knew the game was going to be tight no matter what,” Fleck said. “… When we did throw the ball downfield, we were able to complete it. … But we’re getting closer to being the offense we want to be.”