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Gophers’ Chris Autman-Bell has progressed from injury, but his status is still hazy

Head coach P.J. Fleck said the team’s doctors will make the final decision as to if he plays on Thursday against Ohio State

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Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell (7) catches a pass and rushes with the ball for first down in the first quarter against the Purdue Boilermakers Nov. 20, 2020, at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Jesse Johnson / USA TODAY Sports
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Gophers head football coach P.J. Fleck doesn’t like to talk about players’ injuries, but he can be willing to talk around them.

After No. 1 receiver Chris Autman-Bell injured his ankle when he was taken down in a horse-collar tackle during an Aug. 12 practice, Fleck first said on Aug. 16 that “CrAB” did not suffer a serious injury and was considered “week-to-week.”

By Aug. 23, Autman-Bell had progressed, in Fleck’s words, to “day-to-day,” and the coach stayed with that designation when talking about it on Aug. 27. But there were some qualifiers included in Fleck’s quote, followed by a bottom line.

“He’s kind of moved from week-to-week to somewhat day-to-day now,” Fleck said. “We are excited about the progress he’s making. We are going to do what’s best for Chris, first. We are going to make sure Chris is healthy enough to do whatever, whether it’s practice, whether it’s reps, whether it’s playing in a game. But we will take that one day at a time.”

On Monday, Fleck gave another update on Autman-Bell’s status on his KFAN radio show. It included more progress and the same baseline.

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“He’s doing great, guys; he really is,” Fleck said. “He’s really come a long way. He was out there at practice running (Sunday). He’s a little more kind of advanced in terms of a game-time decision. But I won’t make that call. Chris will make that call, along with our medical team.”

Fleck said the team’s doctors will make the final decision.

“He has been working his way back into it; I think that’s the thing,” Fleck continued. “He feels great. He’s pretty healthy, but is he ready to play in a game yet? That’s where we’ve got to make sure, just because he’s healthy and ready to go, is he truly ready to play in a game? I think that is what the doctors really look at.”

That’s where the rub might be. If Autman-Bell has progressed as much as Fleck has said over the past few weeks, is it enough to not risk re-injury and setting back his availability to a week-to-week status?

Can Autman-Bell be healthy enough to contribute to Minnesota’s upset bid of No. 4 Ohio State in Thursday’s season opener? Will he warm up to play at Huntington Bank Stadium? Might he be used as a decoy in the game, or can he be a legitimate target for quarterback Tanner Morgan?

Or is it best for Autman-Bell to rest and keep rehabbing his ankle to be available for a few weeks during nonconference play? After Thursday’s game, the U will face Miami (Ohio) at home on Sept. 11, travel to play Colorado in Boulder on Sept. 18 and host Bowling Green on Sept. 25. The Big Ten schedule restarts at Purdue on Oct. 2.

Gophers in NFL

Six former Gophers players were released by NFL teams on Tuesday: Rodney Smith and Jon Celestin from the Panthers, Chris Williamson from the Falcons, Briean Boddy-Calhoun from the Titans, Kiondre Thomas from the Browns and Craig James from the Eagles.

There were two previous exits from NFL rosters during training camp: Burnsville’s Kamal Martin (Packers) and Maple Grove’s Sam Renner (Buccaneers). On Aug. 24, Martin was released by Green Bay, and Renner was cut and given an injury settlement.

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Minnesota has 12 former players on initial 53-man NFL rosters: Antoine Winfield and Tyler Johnson (Buccaneers); Rashod Bateman (Ravens); Maxx Williams and Chris Streveler (Cardinals); Damien Wilson (Jaguars); Carter Coughlin (Giants); Benjamin St-Juste (Washington); Blake Cashman (Jets); De’Vondre Campbell (Packers); Eric Murray (Texans), and Ryan Santoso (Panthers).

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