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Winfield Jr. leaving his own mark in Minnesota

The Gophers' starting safety leads the Big Ten and is tied for second in the nation with 7 interceptions.
Credit: AP
Minnesota defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. during an NCAA football game against South Dakota State Thursday, Aug. 29, 2019 in Minneapolis. (AP Photo/Andy Clayton- King)

MINNEAPOLIS — Growing up the son of an all-pro NFL cornerback, Antoine Winfield Jr.'s upbringing was a little unique.

It wasn't filled with father-son fishing trips or camping excursions. No, Winfield Jr. bonded with his father, former Minnesota Viking Antoine Winfield, in different ways.

"A lot of watching football and playing football," said Winfield Jr. "Growing up, my dad was an NFL player but as a kid, you don't really think of that."

Winfield Jr. grew up around the football field. On Sundays, he'd be at every home game. Even when the Vikings were on the road, football was always top of mind.

"I remember watching the game and playing football with my little brothers while he's playing. We'd be playing 'Crush the Carrier' or something. I had a fun childhood."

That enjoyment, along with his passion for football, has followed him to the University of Minnesota where he is turning heads as the starting safety for the 11th-ranked Gophers.

Winfield Jr. leads the Big Ten, and is tied for second in the nation with seven interceptions, including two in Minnesota's win over Penn State. The redshirt sophomore was also named a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which is awarded to the best defensive player in college football.

"I think he's one of the best game changers in all of college football," insists Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck. "When you have guys that can literally change the game with one play, change the game by how hard they play, be disruptive of teams' offenses, that's what he's brought. He's a special player at any level. I'm just glad I don't have to play against him. He's on our team."

As big a presence Winfield Jr. has on the field, his presence off the field has been just as important. Primarily, in the film room.

"Antoine Winfield has definitely been one of those guys who has sparked up the film study and ramped it up in a certain direction," said Gophers defensive lineman Winston DeLattiboudere.

That goes back to his days of watching film with his dad.

"There's a lot of memories of watching film with him," said Winfield Jr. about his father. "I used to always watch his high school film. He'd take me and we would watch the things he'd do. When I got older, like from high school on in, we'd watch film of my opponents and of myself, just to critique myself, so I can get better."

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The film sessions have certainly paid off. With two games remaining in the regular-season schedule Winfield Jr. has already matched the school record for interceptions for a season, set back in 1970 by Jeff Wright.

"He's a unique player because he will function in coverage as well as he will fitting in the box," said Gophers defensive coordinator Joseph Rossi. "Usually, safeties, you have guys who are good at one or the other, he's unique because he's really good at both."

That versatility gives Rossi plenty to work with.

"There are some game plans where he's a primary fit guy, where we're using him a lot, and then there's other games where we're not," Rossi said. "He gives us the flexibility to be able to do that and, when someone has that ability, it's very nice as a coach ... whatever we need to ask him to do as a staff, he can definitely do it."

Fleck and Rossi weren't coaches at Minnesota when Winfield Jr. was being recruited, but coaches aren't the only ones who can bring in talent.

"(Gopher linebacker) Carter Coughlin is actually the reason I came up here," Winfield Jr. said. "I was raised up here but we were down in Texas at the time, so when I came up here to visit some friends, he had just committed here, so he's like 'Hey, Antoine you should check out Minnesota with me,' and I said I would check it out. I came up here, got a little visit in and just fell in love with the place."

The Gophers (9-1) are coming off their first loss of the season, but still control their own destiny in the Big Ten West Division. Minnesota is on the road Saturday against Northwestern before returning home to host Wisconsin, in what could be a division-deciding matchup.

"Last winter, right after the season was over when we started training ... Fleck put up a picture of Indianapolis," Winfield Jr. said. "Ever since then, that's been our goal."

If the Gophers do end the season atop the Big Ten West Division, Minnesota will travel to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship game against Ohio State -- his father's alma mater. So where would their allegiance lie?

"Both my parents, they went to Ohio State and I was an Ohio State fan growing up, but (my parents) will be Ski-U-Mah," Winfield Jr. said.

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