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‘Ultimate alpha.’ Gophers receiver Autman-Bell back where he belongs

Minneapolis Star Tribune logo Minneapolis Star Tribune 9/27/2021 Randy Johnson, Star Tribune

One quarter had expired in the Gophers football game at Colorado last week, and the Buffaloes were executing the type of rope-a-dope formula that nearly resulted in an upset of then-No. 5 Texas A&M a week earlier.

The Gophers, however, countered with a solid right cross in the form of Chris Autman-Bell, and Colorado was never the same.

Back from missing the season's first two games because of a lower leg injury, Autman-Bell hauled in a 32-yard pass from Tanner Morgan to the Buffaloes 13-yard line, high-pointing the ball for a twisting catch.

Two plays later, the Gophers took a 6-0 lead and were on their way to a 30-0 victory. Their best wide receiver not only led the team with four catches for 79 yards, but he also lifted its spirit.

"Every time he gets the ball in his hands," Gophers offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. said, "he's looking to literally run through another human being's soul, which is awesome to watch."

The presence of Autman-Bell can't be underestimated for the Gophers, who play Bowling Green on Saturday before resuming Big Ten play Oct. 2 at Purdue. The fifth-year senior is the last remaining player from the wideout triumvirate that also included Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, a group that terrorized opposing defenses for a combined 174 catches, 2,908 yards and 29 touchdowns in 2019.

Now, Autman-Bell is the graybeard of a receiver group that also relies on sophomores Daniel Jackson, Dylan Wright and Mike Brown-Stephens. His return provided a needed jolt.

"That play wasn't a momentous play, but it was a play where all of a sudden, 'Yep, our guy's back,'" Sanford said.

For Autman-Bell, the return from that Aug. 12 injury didn't just feed his competitive needs. It also renewed the family feeling he has with the Gophers.

"It was awesome, especially not just playing the game," he said, "but being back on the field with my brothers."

Basketball, then football

Growing up in Kankakee, Ill., a city of about 28,000 located about 60 miles south of downtown Chicago, Autman-Bell made a name for himself as a basketball player, starting for Bishop McNamara High School as a sophomore and eventually leading the Fighting Irish to the state semifinals as a senior.

"He came into high school thinking he wanted to be a college basketball player, but he had so much success as a football player that he made the transition," said Adrian Provost, Bishop McNamara's basketball coach.

In football, Autman-Bell helped the Fighting Irish win the Class 2A championship as a junior, previewing the attention to detail and tenacity that's on display with the Gophers.

"He gets as much joy out of blocking and doing the little thing as he does catching passes," said Rich Zinanni, Autman-Bell's football coach at Bishop McNamara. "You knew that a 50/50 ball, he was going to come down with it."

Autman-Bell broke a hand in the season opener as a senior and missed the rest of the football season, but Gophers coach P.J. Fleck, then at Western Michigan, already had received a commitment from the wideout to play for the Broncos and stuck with him.

When Fleck left Western Michigan for the Gophers in early January of 2017, Autman-Bell wasn't sure what that would mean for him.

"Chris was really nervous," Provost said. "He loved Western Michigan, but a good reason for going to Western Michigan was Coach Fleck. Chris was kind of in limbo and was hoping to hear from Coach Fleck. We were on a bus ride home from playing Providence Catholic, and Coach Fleck called and offered him. Chris accepted on the phone on our bus."

A big part of the decision, Autman-Bell said, was the fact that Morgan was going to Minnesota, too.

"That's not a friend, that's a brother to me," Autman-Bell said. "Being together at Western and coming here together and having that brotherly love, that's my guy. I'm sure he'll be at my wedding, and I'll be at his."

Said Morgan, "It was an instant connection, friendship-wise. We're different, but we're very similar, too. … Our journey's taken us here, and I'm thankful to be part of his story."

Growth with the Gophers

With the Gophers, Autman-Bell has progressed from a redshirt freshman who caught 28 passes in a complementary role, to a sophomore who saved the Gophers at Fresno State with a spectacular fourth-down, back-of-the-end-zone catch that forced overtime, to his current role as elder statesman.

"He is the ultimate Alpha, and that's what you want," Sanford said.

Gophers wide receivers coach Matt Simon, who recruited Autman-Bell to Western Michigan, has seen him develop as a leader.

"He's done an unbelievable job developing the young guys to have his mentality and his attitude," Simon said. "His leadership with those guys was at first frustrating for him. But he grew to be more patient with it. Development doesn't happen overnight. His leadership changed from frustration to patient but demanding at the same time."

That was on display against Colorado. When Wright caught a 39-yard pass, he also shifted the ball to his left arm just before getting hit, a no-no for a team that preaches "the ball is the program."

"Chris is right there after Dylan gets tackled," Simon said. "He's right there talking to him after about protecting the ball and chinning the ball. … He literally is another coach on the field."

The fact that he's back on the field and contributing in a variety of ways makes it all the better for the Gophers.

"I'm not the type of receiver who just wants to make plays and get out of the way," Autman-Bell said. "I love blocking, I love being physical. I love doing more than just catching the ball. You're more of an offensive weapon when you're doing more than just catching."

Added Fleck, "We were just so thankful to have him back."

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