MINNEAPOLIS — Chris Autman-Bell did his waiting. Two years of it.
From 2017 on the Gophers scout team to last season making 28 catches without a score, the receiver watched as standouts such as Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman made highlight reels and award lists. It frustrated Autman-Bell, putting in the same work and making spectacular catches in practice that never manifested in an actual game.
Until this past Saturday at Fresno State.
On fourth-and-13 with 46 seconds left in the game, the Gophers needed a touchdown to force overtime. Autman-Bell rose into the air in the corner of the end zone to ensnare quarterback Tanner Morgan’s perfect throw. The sophomore receiver planted his left foot right on the edge of out-of-bounds before toppling the pylon.
He knew immediately he was in, though he admitted later he surely would have been out if he wore a size 13 shoe.
“You never know when your opportunity is going to come to make a play that could change the story of the game,” offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. “And man, that was a big story changer.”
Along with Morgan, Autman-Bell was one of the standout recruits who committed to P.J. Fleck at Western Michigan and followed him to Minnesota once the Gophers hired him. One analyst asserted other Big Ten schools had just “flat-out missed” on the 6-1, 215-pound physical player who can vertically stretch the field. But so far, Autman-Bell hasn’t had much of a chance to show that talent with such a stacked offense.
Autman-Bell hasn’t been shy about his desire for a bigger role. One of his best friends on the team, sophomore running back Mohamed Ibrahim, tabbed Autman-Bell as a potential breakout star at Big Ten Media Days this summer, saying the receiver was hungry playing behind some attention-grabbers.
The Kankakee, Ill, native shared posts on social media that established his expectations for having a big season this year. One, a photo of Johnson holding the ball with Autman-Bell trying to take it, he captioned, “You gotta share that this year my boy,” complete with a smiling emoji.
On Monday, he shared a photo of his first touchdown and wrote, “Everything comes at the right time, be patient.”
Autman-Bell said after the Fresno State double-overtime victory that Johnson and Bateman have actually helped keep him focused and encouraged. Johnson was the first to celebrate with Autman-Bell directly after the catch, first running to the official with raised hands to confirm the score before bumping helmets with his teammate.
Johnson, who set single-season school records for 1,169 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns last season, hasn’t stood out in two games this year, mainly because teams keep double-covering him. In the season-opener, it was Bateman’s one-handed catch that thrilled. At Fresno State, it was Autman-Bell’s turn.
Fleck said he will continue to move Johnson around, even put him in the run game on the fly sweep, in an effort to break through that heavy coverage. In the meantime, defenses keying on Johnson open up under-the-radar players like Autman-Bell. Fleck called the play on that fourth-and-13 because he knew Autman-Bell wasn’t as covered as Johnson or Bateman but just as capable.
Autman-Bell knows it, too. When asked in training camp about which receiver has the best hands, he volunteered himself with little hesitation. Fleck even gave him a nickname last season because of those hands: Crab. It was partly a play off Cab — Autman-Bell’s other nickname based on his initials — partly about how a crab’s claws apply pressure, the same force Autman-Bell exerts when clamping down on the ball.
Ciarrocca said he knows Autman-Bell is a competitor who wants to be the No. 1 guy, has the confidence and belief in himself to know he can improve on his 449 receiving yards from last year. But this determination doesn’t come off as cocky or entitled. Autman-Bell is always smiling, talking at warp-speed, calling his fellow receivers his brothers.
And now that he’s stepped up at a crucial time and made one big play, Autman-Bell is ready for another.
“Oh, I would love to have more moments like that,” Autman-Bell said. “… It was good to know, show that I can make these plays in these type of moments and get my trust from my teammates and coaches.”