Alex Hickey: Replacing WR Chris Autman-Bell will define Minnesota's season
You don’t go 55 years without a Big Ten title without a few bad breaks. And over the decades, Minnesota has had its share — starting with its most recent championship season.
The Golden Gophers finished in a 3-way tie atop the conference with Purdue and Indiana in 1967, but the Hoosiers earned the Rose Bowl berth because at that point they had gone the longest since playing in the game. And at the time, that was the Big Ten’s only bowl bid.
So Minnesota hasn’t been to Pasadena since New Year’s Day, 1961.
The past couple seasons, PJ Fleck has assembled teams capable of snapping that drought. A trip to the Rose Bowl is very much in the cards for the Big Ten West champ, especially if Ohio State or Michigan — or both! — qualify for the College Football Playoff.
But that luck thing keeps cropping up.
Last season, Fleck’s rowboat sprung a leak in Week 1 when star running back Mohamed Ibrahim was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. The Gophers found a way to endure, finishing 9-4 despite injuries forcing them to use 5 different feature backs over the course of the season.
But you couldn’t shake the feeling the West was there for the taking with a healthy Ibrahim. His talent is a cut above, as he’s shown since returning from his injury this season. Ibrahim has 12 consecutive 100-yard games dating to 2019, including the 3 quarters he played against Ohio State before tearing his Achilles in last year’s opener.
Off to a 3-0 start and scoring 49.7 points per game, Minnesota looks like the team to beat in the Big Ten West. But injury luck has once again reared its ugly head on the Gophers.
Wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell — 1 of 4 key sixth-year seniors motoring Minnesota’s offense — is out for the season with a leg injury.
Finding a way to replace his production is paramount to Minnesota’s chances of playing for a Big Ten championship.
What Chris Autman-Bell means to the offense
Autman-Bell has progressed from Rashod Bateman’s successful sidekick to Minnesota’s main man in the 2 years since Bateman left for the NFL.
Since the start of last season, Autman-Bell has accounted for 23.7% of Minnesota’s receptions, 27.5% of Minnesota’s receiving yards and 43.8% of Minnesota’s receiving touchdowns. He leads the Gophers and is 5th in the Big Ten with an average of 19.5 yards per catch this season.
“He’s a big member of this football team. I’d be lying to you if I said he wasn’t,” Fleck said on Monday. “He’s one of the most integral parts of what we do and how we do it on and off the field, and one of the best people.”
Autman-Bell’s ability as a downfield burner is a key component in Ibrahim’s success. Safeties can’t cheat and go all-in to defend the run, because they’ll end up looking at the back of Autman-Bell’s jersey.
Now someone else needs to fill that role to keep the machine moving.
“No matter what, we’re trained to Row the Boat,” Fleck said.
Fortunately, the Gophers have a few candidates who seem capable of replacing Autman-Bell’s oar.
Who will replace Chris Autman-Bell?
In this case, it’s next hyphenated name up. Mike Brown-Stephens is now Minnesota’s top wide receiver.
Based on his body of work, Brown-Stephens seems up to the task. He was Morgan’s No. 2 option last year, averaging 17 yards per catch on 23 receptions. This season he has 6 catches for 107 yards.
Brown-Stephens is no doubt relishing the opportunity to make a name for himself, too. He is perhaps best known for who he’s related to — musician and all-around famous guy John Legend.
Fleck even spoke at Big Ten Media Days about how Legend is the most famous person in his phone contacts. Perhaps now Brown-Stephens has a chance for people to start referring to Legend as “Mike Brown-Stephens’ uncle.”
While Brown-Stephens can get downfield quickly, he cannot replicate Autman-Bell’s size. Brown-Stephens is a prototypical slot receiver. Autman-Bell has 2 inches and 15 pounds on him.
That means it is time for Dylan Wright to step up.
Wright, who transferred from Texas A&M prior to last season, has shown flashes. When Autman-Bell missed the first 2 games in 2021, Wright was a weapon. He caught 8 passes for 130 yards and 2 touchdowns against Ohio State and Miami (Ohio). After Autman-Bell returned, Wright had 10 receptions the rest of the season and never scored again.
But there’s no question the 6-3, 210-pound Wright has some similar tendencies to a certain lanky, fast receiver who made his name with Minnesota’s NFL team. Of those 18 catches, 10 were for more than 15 yards and 7 went at least 25 yards. This year, 3 of his 4 receptions are for 15-plus.
Wright can both get down the field and get up for a jump ball.
— Barstool Gophers (@BarstoolUMN) September 19, 2022
Absurd catch from Dylan Wright! pic.twitter.com/6REB49yhNz
— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) September 17, 2022
There are other pass-catchers who need to step up, of course.
Tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, currently 2nd on the team in receptions, will continue to be a critical option. Redshirt freshman La’Meke Brockington will need to have his oar ready, because odds are he’s getting tossed into the deep water. But Wright is the player most capable of making sure the Gophers can move on from Autman-Bell without a hiccup.
Autman-Bell’s season-ending injury is the most impactful loss for any Big Ten team in this young season. And for Minnesota, it’s lousy luck that this is the second straight September losing a high-impact player.
But if there were ever a time for a Fleck-coached team to live up to his mantra, this is it. The Gophers should have the depth to handle this. Now they must row ahead and prove it.