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Gophers receiver Chris Autman-Bell feels great after ‘frustrating’ 2021 season

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Minnesota
Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell (7) outraces Wisconsin Badgers cornerback Faion Hicks (1) to score the go-ahead touchdown at Huntington Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021. Minnesota won 23-13.
Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel via USA Today Sports Network
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MINNEAPOLIS — When Chris Autman-Bell was injured in preseason camp last August, the loss of the Gophers’ No. 1 target was a major blow to its passing game to start the season.

The loss hurt further because the receiver was believed to be peaking going into his fifth collegiate season.

“Chris Autman-Bell had the best training camp I’ve seen by a wide receiver since I’ve been coaching,” coach P.J. Fleck said in March. “Then he got hurt, and he fought that through … the first few games, then he came back and got hurt on the first play of one of the games we lost (to Bowling Green). I’m looking forward to him having, hopefully, a very healthy season because he looks amazing.”

Autman-Bell didn’t say in mid-April how long that ankle injury affected his play last year. He had career highs in receptions (36), yards (506) and touchdowns (six) in 11 games, but it wasn’t the type of production expected out of WR1. It was also a passing game-wide epidemic.

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“Last year was super frustrating,” Autman-Bell said. “I stayed positive the whole time and had a smile on my face and kept pushing, because it’s bigger than me.”

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Autman-Bell said he’s now fully back. “This is probably the best I’ve ever felt physically,” he said. “… I feel awesome.”

Given Autman-Bell’s injury came on a needless full-contact drill for a tested veteran in camp, he should be kept far away from the Gophers’ spring game Saturday. Fleck said on KFXN-FM on Monday that running backs Mo Ibrahim and Trey Potts won’t play in the scrimmage; they suffered season-ending injuries in 2021.

Spring game move?

Saturday’s rainy forecast might move the location of the spring game from Huntington Bank Stadium to the program’s indoor practice facility. The U will determine its plans and announce them later this week.

A move indoors would, of course, limit fan attendance. It could become a family-only event. Regardless, the game will air at 1 p.m. on Big Ten Network.

The game will have former star players as honorary coaches: Rashod Bateman and Kamal Martin on the gold team; Carter Coughlin and Antoine Winfield Jr., on the maroon side.

New corners

The Gophers have been impressed with transfer cornerbacks Shannon “Beanie” Bishop (Western Kentucky) and Ryan Stapp (Abilene Christian) in spring ball.

“Beanie jammed me up last practice,” Autman-Bell said April 16. “I go against Ryan Stapp every day. Those guys are going to be ball players for the Gopher nation. I hope you guys understand and look into them more.”

Stapp’s highlight Tuesday was an interception return for a touchdown. It came against backup quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, after Kaliakmanis beat Stapp with a long touchdown pass to Dylan Wright. Stapp had close coverage, but the 6-foot-3 receiver caught the ball over his head.

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Teammates on either side of the ball went wild after each big play.

Briefly

All-Big Ten center John Michael Schmitz is not expected to play in the spring game. The sixth-year player was present Tuesday but did not participate in the practice. … Anthony Brown, the four-star receiver from Springfield, Ohio, who de-committed from Minnesota in February, will be back on campus as a recruit for the spring game. … Cornerback Terell Smith had offseason surgery, and while he returned to spring practices, he won’t play on Saturday. … Tackle J.J. Guedet and receiver Lemeke Brockington are two other notables out all spring with an injuries.

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