How Zack Annexstad went from bypassed recruit to Minnesota starting quarterback as a true freshman walk-on
One emoji was enough for IMG Academy quarterbacks coach Adam Behrends.
He saw the news that Minnesota named true freshman walk-on Zack Annexstad its starting quarterback for the season opener. On Monday, Annexstad was the talk of the college football world. The same was true at Annexstad’s high school, IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.). The program that fields more prep talent than any high school in America was buzzing about the announcement out of the Twin Cities.
It didn’t surprise Behrends or IMG head coach Kevin Wright. Both of them knew that Annexstad had put himself in position to win the job to start his college career.
What they might not have realized was that in doing so, Annexstad would join Baker Mayfield as the only true freshmen walk-ons to ever start at quarterback in Week 1 of an FBS game.
One hell of an accomplishment warranted one simple emoji text from Behrends to Annexstad — a fist pound.
Don’t worry. Behrends called his former quarterback later in the week once the hoopla died down.
This, however, is just the beginning for Annexstad. He’s got plenty of learning experiences ahead.
But as his high school coaches will tell you, he’s pretty well-versed in that department.
Who is Zack Annexstad as a human being? Behrends summed that up.
“This might sound weird but if you’re the type of kid who doesn’t like Zack, you’re probably a butthead,” he said.
That’s coming from someone who spent two years working closely with Annexstad roughly every day. Wright echoed that belief and added that he’s someone who guys rally around, much like they did for fellow IMG graduate Shea Patterson. That’s not a bad trait to win over a locker room as a true freshman walk-on.
Annexstad already has a few guys in his corner. IMG offensive linemen Curtis Dunlap Jr. and Daniel Faalele are from Florida and Australia, respectively. Both of them turned down big-time offers from places like Florida, Georgia and Miami (FL) in favor of Minnesota.
“I think (Minnesota) did a heckuva job recruiting (Dunlap and Faalele) and I think it was the best fit for them,” Behrends said. “But anybody who would think Zack didn’t play a part in recruiting those guys and getting them up there would be mistaken.”
Annexstad had someone else in his corner when he joined the Gophers. His older brother, Brock, also went to IMG and went to Minnesota as a preferred walk-on receiver.
Well, as of last week, Brock is no longer a preferred walk-on. The younger Annexstad got to deliver that good news at a team meeting:
— P.J. Fleck (@Coach_Fleck) August 18, 2018
Scholarship or not, the Annexstad brothers are already doing what they set out to do. It’s somewhat improbable, considering the Norseland, Minnesota natives didn’t even always have a clear path to walk on at their home state school.
It didn’t matter that they were legacies after their dad, Scott, played at Minnesota in the early 1980s, or that they left Mankato West High School (Minn.) and transferred to IMG, which has become the hotbed program for Power 5 recruits.
The previous staff at Minnesota wasn’t interested in the Annexstad brothers.
“I remember sitting with them a couple years ago saying, ‘Golly, what do we have to do to get these kids an opportunity just to walk on at Minnesota? Why is that so difficult?’” Wright said.
Zack Annexstad’s recruiting situation was a combination of bad luck and his IMG surroundings.
When he arrived on campus as a junior in 2016, he actually beat out blue-chip senior quarterback Kellen Mond, who eventually started at Texas A&M as a true freshman.
IMG quarterbacks coach Adam Behrends
But after starting in the season opener, Annexstad lost out to the more talented Mond. One late-season start and some occasional snaps were Annexstad’s best chance to get FBS looks.
Despite his limited playing time as a junior, he did have a handful of FBS scholarship offers from places like Cincinnati, Southern Mississippi and Western Kentucky, who was then coached by Jeff Brohm. The problem was that all 3 programs went through coaching changes in 2016 or 2017.
In addition to fighting for attention from college coaches, Annexstad had a new quarterback to try and beat out. Then-Miami (FL) commit Artur Sitkowski, who is now trying to follow Annexstad’s footsteps and start as a true freshman at Rutgers, won a hotly contested battle and started in IMG’s season opener in 2017.
As a senior, Annexstad wasn’t happy about taking the backup role again. Behrends remembered him being “really, really, really upset” that it still wasn’t his turn. It took a postgame talk from Behrends to change his mindset about the situation.
“I told him, ‘Look, dude. I don’t know when your opportunity is gonna be. It might not be until you’re a junior in college, but at some point, you’re gonna have another opportunity to start football games. You’ve just gotta understand, don’t change anything. Don’t change your approach, don’t change the person you are. Keep chipping away and eventually you’re gonna get another opportunity and you’re gonna do awesome with it,’” Behrends said. “And look what he’s doing now.”
The following Monday, Annexstad showed up with a smile on his face. He followed Behrends’ advice and eventually, he chipped away enough to earn the starting job by the middle of the 2017 season. By season’s end, Annexstad had 940 passing yards and 10 touchdown passes for undefeated IMG.
Unfortunately, Annexstad’s impressive finish to his high school career didn’t result in a flurry of college interest. The 6-3, 200-pound quarterback was ranked the No. 1,471 recruit in the 2017 class. He didn’t have the big-time arm like Sitkowski and he didn’t have the speed like Mond. Still, Annexstad’s goal of becoming an FBS starter never changed.
“He said, ‘regardless of what people say, that’s what I want to do,’” Wright said.
Annexstad does have plenty of things working in his favor.
The intangibles are there. He relies on timing routes and throwing receivers open with anticipation. His decision-making is a major strength. Whether that’s reading a defensive end on a run-pass option or making the smart throw, Annexstad doesn’t have any mental limitations.
IMG coach Kevin Wright
Behrends described him as the type of kid who could not study for a test until the night before, then cram and still get an easy ‘A.’ Concepts come naturally to him. According to Behrends, Annexstad is more likely to dwell on five incompletions than he is to celebrate five touchdown passes. And like fellow true freshman walk-on starter Mayfield, Annexstad plays with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.
Perhaps it was that combination of skills that not only made Fleck offer Annexstad a preferred walk-on spot, but what also allowed him to beat out redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan in fall camp.
Lightly recruited or not, there’s plenty of potential for Annexstad.
“He’s big enough and strong enough, he’s got the arm strength, he processes well,” Wright said. “He’s a guy that you could see him on Sunday.”
Before Annexstad can set his sights on doing that, he’ll try to survive Saturdays in the B1G. The early enrollee already put on roughly 15 pounds to be more durable running the RPOs. Wright noticed that when he saw Annexstad’s picture in Minnesota’s starting quarterback announcement tweet:
— Minnesota Football (@GopherFootball) August 20, 2018
Behrends also saw that Annexstad had put on some muscle since they threw together in Bradenton this past May. That was when Behrends got a feeling that Annexstad could win the starting job. Despite being on campus for a few short months, Behrends saw that Annexstad already knew Minnesota’s offense well.
“I said, ‘Your goal isn’t to start as a true freshman. Your goal is to be freshman of the year, dude,’” Behrends said.
Even just getting average production from the quarterback position would be a lift for the Gophers. Last year, they finished No. 121 of 129 FBS teams in passing offense.
Now, Fleck’s offense is in Annexstad’s hands. If he plays his cards right, that can be the case for the next four years. There will inevitably be some peaks and valleys along the way, which won’t be anything new for Annexstad.
He’s ready to roll with whatever’s next on the winding journey to his ultimate childhood destination.
“That’s been his dream,” Wright said. “Now he gets the opportunity as a true freshman. He’s gonna seize the moment.”