Antoine Winfield and Tyler Johnson make strong 1-2 punch

September 16, 2018

The ball was loose on the turf, and a host of bodies scrambled to grab it. The ball ended up in the Playmakers hands. As usual, Antoine Winfield Jr. made a big play.

Rinse, repeat.

Winfield continues to produce game-changing plays so frequently that they have become routine.

Tyler Johnson is giving him a run for his money.

The Gophers emerged from the nonconference portion of their schedule undefeated at 3-0 in large part because their best players have lived up to that billing.

Especially those two, Winfield and Johnson one on offense and the other on defense, both playing like all-conference standouts.

Much has been made of the Gophers youth and reliance on freshmen, but that shouldnt obscure something equally noteworthy: The law firm of Winfield Johnson have become terrific headliners.

That was evident again in Saturdays 26-3 win over Miami (Ohio) on a sweltering afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium.

Johnson caught three touchdown passes and Winfields first-quarter takeaway set a suffocating tone for the defense. The Gophers werent doing cartwheels over their performance though, especially on offense, but style points dont matter when viewed in the context of the Big Ten carnage on Saturday.

Wisconsin lost at home to BYU. Basketball power Kansas demolished Rutgers by 41 points.

Temple rolled over Maryland by three touchdowns. Nebraska lost at home to Troy.

Bravo, Big Ten. Bravo.

There are a lot of [teams] in our league today that did not win, said Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, who said he was informed of the leagues nightmare as he walked off the field. Winning is hard. Period.

The Gophers youngsters will learn that lesson eventually, but they should feel comforted knowing they have Winfield and Johnson on their sideline as the Big Ten season begins next week at Maryland.

Winfields fumble recovery served as another highlight in his ever-expanding list. He also had six tackles and a slippery punt return of 31 yards.

Winfield has been one of the Big Tens most valuable players through three games. He has already been honored as the conference Defensive Player of the Week and Special Teams Player of the Week the first Gopher ever to earn different weekly awards in the same season.

He took his first career punt 76 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against New Mexico State. He broke five tackles while weaving his way to the end zone. Winfield one-upped that play last week with his save-the-day interception in the end zone in the final seconds against Fresno State. He deserved a perfect 10 in degree of difficulty. His highlights tend to go viral.

Winfield is listed as a defensive back, but thats like calling a Swiss Army Knife a utensil. He plays deep safety one play, and slot nickel the next. He can play outside cornerback or even linebacker in a sub-package.

That kind of versatility gives defensive coordinator Robb Smith the flexibility to use Winfield in a hybrid role, a Rover. Gophers coaches have hinted at the idea of using Winfield on offense at some point. Makes sense.

What remains perplexing is how Winfield could have been so lightly recruited out of high school. The power schools probably scoffed at his size (hes listed at 5-10, 205 pounds now), but its not like he lacks pedigree. As one astute observer noted this week, his name isnt Bob Smith Jr.

His father was a Pro Bowl NFL cornerback, a tackling machine and a cerebral player. His son is a chip off the old block.

Winfields interception last week overshadowed Johnsons own superlative, a leaping grab along the sideline on the go-ahead drive. Johnson hogged the spotlight Saturday with one of his best games in a Gophers uniform.

He set a career high with nine catches and tied his career high in touchdown catches, finishing with 133 receiving yards.

Johnson has had a few drops this season, but hes made up for those lapses with key receptions. He already has five touchdown catches.

Thats what Tyler does, Fleck said. He dominated the game.

Thats become a common theme for Johnson and Winfield. Surrounded by youth, they are creating their own narrative.

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@staertribune.com

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