Lights, camera, Athan: The time is now for Gophers starting quarterback



In 2021, the Gophers defense was on its way to top 10 national rankings in scoring and passing yards allowed per game, but 18-year-old freshman quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis’ arm strength and accuracy were giving them fits during scout-team and seven-on-seven passing periods in practices.

Those one-word quotes from all-Big Ten defensive backs Coney Durr and Tyler Nubin are only a recent example of the precociousness Kaliakmanis has displayed throughout his playing days.

While Kaliakmanis didn’t light up the conference in his first few Big Ten games, stepping in for injured starter Tanner Morgan last year, he clearly improved as the season progressed, with a 300-yard, two-touchdown performance in a win at Wisconsin serving as his capstone.

After turning 20 last weekend, Kaliakmanis enters his first full season as the Gophers’ starting quarterback. The offense has been built around his skill set going into Thursday’s opener against Nebraska at Huntington Bank Stadium.

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As a kid in Illinois, Kaliakmanis was less than a week away from the cutoff to being held back a grade in school; that isn’t even the start of him doing advanced things at a young age.

Father Alex Kaliakmanis said Athan threw a baseball so hard Alex wished he had worn a mitt. Athan was five years old.

At Antioch (Ill.) Community High School in 2018, Kaliakmanis broke single-season records for passing yards and passing touchdowns. He was a 15-year-old sophomore.

“I knew that if I was there, I belonged there,” Kaliakmanis told the Pioneer Press this week. “That always stuck with me. I’m really high on God. I always pray to him, and I believe he put me in a position to do that.”

Nervous energy

Before Athan’s first start at Penn State last October, Alex Kaliakmanis stayed at his cousin’s place in Pennsylvania, and as they drove into State College, Alex, a former collegiate wrestler at Seton Hall, was stunned by “that monster stadium on the hill.”

Beaver Stadium would be rocking for a prime-time, nationally televised game — the Nittany Lions’ annual “White Out” game in front of more than 100,000 fans.

“Is he gonna be OK?” Alex recalled thinking about Athan.

Before the game, Alex saw head coach P.J. Fleck, who waved at his QB’s father and gave him a look that Alex interpreted as everything is going to be fine. Then Athan came over.

“He said, ‘Dad, I’m good,’ ” Alex recalled. “I looked into his eyes and saw he was good.”

The Gophers had a restrictive playbook for Athan’s initial start, coming against the 16th-ranked Nittany Lions, with Kaliakmanis growing into the game and competing 9 of 22 passes for 175 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a 45-17 loss.

Here’s what he said he learned that day: “I can handle a lot more than I think I can.”

Kaliakmanis’ five total starts in 2022, as well as two games filling in for a concussed Morgan, were invaluable big-stage experience going into his first full season as a starter this fall.

“It helped me a lot in terms of what I’m going to do this year,” he said.

When Kaliakmanis completed 19 of 29 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns in the 23-16 win against the Badgers in Madison on Nov. 26, the Gophers weren’t surprised.

Not happy

Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has worked for other coaches who don’t want their defense to look bad against the scout team in practice. But Rossi doesn’t worry about that with his unit.

The Gophers opened the 2021 season against No. 6-ranked Ohio State, and leading up that game, Kaliakmanis recalled Fleck told his true freshman QB: “You need to be as good as CJ Stroud.”

“I will never forget him saying that to me,” Kaliakmanis said this week. “When he said that to me, something just clicked in my head. I need to take scout team way more serious than I thought I was going into. I need to be as good as any quarterback they are going to play ever week.”

It’s not uncommon for a freshman to come in to a college program, defer to first-team players on either side of the ball, be a bit sheepish and not give it his all.

But Kaliakmanis often frustrated the Gophers’ top-notch defense, which included handful of players who either went on to be NFL draft picks, received shots at the next level or will soon get their chance in the league. That secondary also included 2023 draft picks Jordan Howden (Saints) and Terell Smith (Bears).

“This dude would make the throws … and ones were crazy — like damn,” Durr told the Pioneer Press. “It was nothing we could do about it. He was zipping the ball. We knew where we were going to be at.”

Nubin recalls one practice in particular when Kaliakmanis didn’t many, if any, throws.

“It was ridiculous,” Nubin said. “We are sitting there like, ‘Are we going to have tough week this week? C’mon now.”

Rossi is fine letting the scout-team quarterback have extra time in the pocket to complete a pass. So Kaliakmanis had that going for him, but he also had to make plays with an underdeveloped offensive line and green wideouts. When Rossi saw his defense get irked by Kaliakmanis, he had to remind them the once-four-star recruit is pretty dang good.

During preparations for the Guaranteed Rate Bowl that December, Antioch head coach Brian Glashagel came to watch practices. During one scrimmage, Kaliakmanis stepped up into pocket and then took off and ran for an extra 10, 15 yards.

Fleck didn’t love some aspect of what Kaliakmanis did on the play and went to correct it, while then offensive-coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca turned to Glashagel with a wide-eyed look.

“Yeah, I saw that for three years,” Glashagel recalled sharing.

After setting school records in high school as a sophomore, Glashagel said Kaliakmanis was making even more big plays as a junior.

“The amount of times we would be like, ‘no, no, no, no, no.’ And then like, ‘yes!’ ” Glashagel said. “He’d make a throw across his body that you’re not supposed to make, everyone sitting in their couch watching football knows you don’t roll left and then throw it across the middle. He did that. And it’s complete.

“So I got to the point where it’s like, I just gotta turn him loose. Just let him be him. He breaks all the rules of things you’re not supposed to do. And it’s just like, ‘Let him go.’ ”

Gophers new co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Greg Harbaugh will continue to teach Kaliakmanis how they want the offense run, but Fleck will at times need to live with some of the risk-reward aspects of what Kaliakmanis brings to the field.



That word from top receiver Daniel Jackson — and others — has often been used to describe Kaliakmanis’s personality.

One of the best examples of his extroverted ways came during his junior year at Antioch. He had broke his collar bone midway through the season, but the Sequoits were hoping to get him back in the playoffs.

The day after Kaliakmanis’ injury, he went to support the junior varsity team. With his arm in a sling, he got so excited by a touchdown that he ran to the end zone to give a chest bump.

“We’re like, ‘Dude, what are you doing?’ ” Glashagel recalled.

Kaliakmanis put his head in his hands when reminded of that story this week. That instance then brought a smile to his face.

“I’m the guy that is always excited for other people’s success,” he said.

When Mo Ibrahim scored in the Pinstripe Bowl in December, it was Kaliakmanis caught on camera letting out a big scream in the end zone at Yankee Stadium. Fleck said there were other times when his young QB was having fun when he probably should have been preparing for the next offensive series.

But Kaliakmanis also has a serious side. During the U’s media day in July, the wallpaper on his phone revealed an image of Kobe Bryant with ice packs on his knees.

Bryant had his “Mamba Mentality,” and the redshirt sophomore QB described his still-formulating mindset. “No matter what you go through in life, you always get back up,” he said. “… Any situation, you have to keep your head up and keep moving forward. Kobe Bryant always did that.”

Kaliakmanis exited the bowl game with an ankle injury and he harkened back to how Bryant would remind himself when he was hurt that fans had paid good money to see him play and that he worked so hard to get to that spot.

“That was something that stuck with me,” Kaliakmanis said.

Seventh-year receiver Chris Autman-Bell has seen Kaliakmanis step up over the summer. “He’s matured so much over the offseason,” Autman-Bell said. “He’s gotten bigger. He’s getting tattoos now. He’s just growing up.”

Kaliakmanis’ ink shows how grounded he tries to remain. His left forearm has a homage to his heritage, with the Greek work for “family” underneath a cross, surrounded by flowers, to reflect his faith.

“These are the two most important things in my life,” he said. Teammates aren’t far behind on that list.

“He is always cool vibes,” Nubin said. “He is a fun dude, and he just loves to play football. You can tell that. When someone brings that energy to the table, especially in a high-stakes situation. I feel like it calms everybody down. He is going to be the guy that goes, ‘We good. Let’s just play football.’ ”

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