Gophers football sets draft record with 5 picks, 2 pairs of teammates
Gophers receiver Tyler Johnson dominated in the Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa on New Year’s Day, and now he’s headed back to Florida as the Buccaneers took him with 161st pick in the fifth round of the NFL draft on Saturday.
The North Minneapolis native also will remain teammates with Antoine Winfield Jr., the U safety the Bucs took in the second round Friday.
Three more Gophers went later in the draft: Burnsville linebacker Kamal Martin to the Packers with the 175th pick in the fifth round; Eden Prairie linebacker/defensive end Carter Coughlin to the Giants with the 218th pick in the seventh round; and Atlanta nickle back Chris Williamson also went to Giants with 247th pic.
The Gophers’ five-pack of picks set a program record since the current seven-round format started in 1994. They had four picks in 2001, ’06 and ’15. Over that entire span, Minnesota had averaged 1.3 players taken per year.
“This is the first year you’re going to start to see … a big draft classes come out, Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck said. “Whether five guys get drafted, three guys get drafted, it’s going to propel us into the future.”
Johnson, the first Gophers receiver drafted since Eric Decker went to the Titans in the third round in 2010, will have a familiar face in the locker room in Tampa.
“I saw big ‘Tweeze’ get picked up … got a chance to call him, and talk to him and congratulate him,” Johnson said of Winfield during a conference call Saturday. “We all know that right now it’s back to business. We celebrate, take these moments, but the next day we move forward.”
Johnson won the MVP award during Minnesota’s 31-24 win over Auburn in the Bucs’ home stadium. The 6-foot-1 receiver had 12 receptions for 204 yards and two touchdowns, and beat two Tigers defensive backs he watched go ahead of him in the draft — Noah Igbinoghene and Daniel Thomas.
“I loved playing out there,” Johnson said.
Despite Johnson putting up massive numbers across two Big Ten seasons, Johnson was dogged by concerns over his speed. He didn’t run a 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in February and the Gophers’ pro day in March was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Honestly, this may sound crazy, but I feel like I already have something to prove,” Johnson said. “… Once you make it to the … highest level, you have to restart your entire journey.”
But Johnson set records with 213 career receptions, 3,305 yards and 33 touchdowns, including consecutive 1,000-yard, double-digit touchdown seasons in 2018-19.
“This is a guy who is extremely productive,” ESPN commentator Louis Riddick said. “He is best suited to work out of the slot. He doesn’t have great speed or explosiveness but he does have very good route-running ability. He knows how to set up routes within the pattern stem, coming in and out of his break. Needs to clean up some of his drops.”
Despite missing five games due to suspension and foot and knee injuries, Martin was the U’s second-leading tackler with 66 last season.
Coughlin, who led the U with 9 1/2 tackles for lost yards last season, slipped more than ESPN commentator Mel Kiper Jr. expected on Saturday. He will be in New York with the Gophers only draft pick last year, Blake Cashman, a fellow Eden Prairie native went to the Jets in the fifth round.
“He’s relentless, I think it’s a nice pickup,” Kiper said. “… I thought he would go a little bit earlier in this, maybe in the fifth round.”