Win or Lose, Athan Kaliakmanis Leads

NCAA Football: UL Lafayette at Minnesota
Matt Krohn-USA TODAY Sports

On the field, Athan Kaliakmanis’ first season as undisputed QB1 for the Minnesota Gophers has been more down than up. He came into the year expected to be a delivery man, tasked with efficiently distributing the football to a wealth of talented skill position players on the 2023 roster.

Athan Kaliakmanis struggles to find footing as Minnesota Gophers QB1

Instead, he’s accumulated some of the worst quarterback stats in the Big Ten. Entering Saturday’s game, Athan ranked near the bottom of the conference in nearly every single statistical passing category Sports Reference has available.

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Related: Minnesota Gophers Can’t Pass (Again)

It’s important to remember that Kaliakmanis is still just a 21-year-old redshirt sophomore. If he uses it all, he still has 2.5 years of eligibility remaining and shows flashes every week of just how high his ceiling is, if he ever reaches it. He’s big, strong, fast enough and the Antioch IL kid can sling it.

Should Athan find his way to consistent accuracy downfield and a more feathery touch from close range, there’s no denying he has the talent, the skillset and the field vision to be one of the better quarterbacks to ever dawn the maroon and gold.

Good game or bad, Kaliakmanis elite interview

But what has stood out to me most about Athan Kaliakmanis, good or bad, through 5 games in 2023, isn’t his high ceiling or slow start. It’s his uncanny ability to lead, no matter how he is playing. And the charm, poise and “it factor” he shows in front of media before, during and after games. No matter the outcome, Athan leads.

Have you heard this kid interview? Two weeks ago, after Minnesota loss in Chapel Hill to North Carolina, Athan put the entire L on his shoulders, after playing what he described as the worst game of his career. He cut open a vein with media afterward and picked his regret-laden performance apart throw by throw, praising/apologizing to teammates, coaches and fans along the way.

Kaliakmanis has a sort of honesty and vulnerability in the way he talks to media. There’s an “it factor” that bubbles from his skin every time a microphone is in his face. That didn’t change on Saturday, after the Gophers pulled away late and defeated the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns 35-24.

Athan shows undeniable leadership after win vs Louisiana

Athan rebounded from poor play in recent weeks, for the most part. PJ Fleck & Co reeled him in a bit and limited his opportunities. He finished with 2 touchdowns and 1 interception, but threw a very efficient 12/14 (86%) for 146 yards.

After the game, Kaliakmanis sat down with reporters and, again, impressed everyone in the room. Without a doubt, Athan is the best press conference interview of any Gophers player I’ve ever seen or covered since starting Minnesota Sports Fan back in 2017.

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He talked about the fight his team showed and raved over the coaching, his teammates and the way they stuck together through adversity. He talked about loving big moments and wanting to be in them as often as possible. He took responsibility for his interception, then praised teammates for the way they picked him up and responded to the moment in the 2nd half.

Still gotta win or none of “it” matters

It’s impossible not to cheer for Athan Kaliakmanis. He has everything it takes to make a great college quarterback, starting with his skill-set and throwing ability on the football field, but possibly exceeded by his leadership and “it factor” in the locker room.

PJ Fleck was eager to prematurely say “I told you so” to the Kaliakmanis doubters out there, during his postgame press conference on Saturday, even if his young QB did only throw 14 passes. That’s because nobody wants Athan to succeed more than PJ, who crowned a teenage Athan as the future of Gopher football nearly 4 years ago.

But at the end of the day, we do not watch or follow power 5 college football to root for the nicest guys. When you get to that level, it’s about winning. And if Athan Kaliakmanis cannot win football games, it won’t matter how great of a kid he is or how talented he was.

Next weekend, he’ll have his latest chance to prove himself as worthy vs one of the best teams in the nation, the #2 ranked Michigan Wolverines.

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Eric Strack | Minnesota Sports Fan

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