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Former East Ridge quarterback among players cleared of wrongdoing in Gopher alleged sexual assault investigation

A general view of a Minnesota Golden Gophers helmet being rested on the turf before a game against the Purdue Boilermakers at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Nov. 5, 2016. Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Four of the 10 University of Minnesota football players facing school discipline in connection to an alleged sexual assault investigation have been cleared by a school panel, according to a lawyer for the players.

Four of the players will be expelled from school and two others suspended for one year unless they pursue and win an appeal to the school's provost. It's not clear whether they will appeal further. The woman who accused the players also has a right to appeal their punishment.

The players no longer facing punishment are freshman safety Antoine Winfield Jr., freshman quarterback Seth Green, sophomore defensive back Antonio Shenault and junior running back Kobe McCrary.

Attorney Lee Hutton III said the four players are "very pleased to be vindicated by the panel's rulings.

"The allegations against them were unwarranted and could have greatly harmed their bright futures. They look forward to putting this incident behind them and moving ahead in their academic and athletic pursuits," Hutton said in an emailed statement.

Those four initially faced one-year suspensions or, in Shenault's case, probation.

4 to be expelled

The panel upheld most of the more serious penalties, a source told KSTP-TV.

Defensive backs Ray Buford, KiAnte Hardin and Dior Johnson and defensive lineman Tamarion Johnson will be expelled from school, and quarterback Mark Williams will get a one-year suspension, the source said. Running back Carlton Djam has his expulsion reduced to a one-year suspension.

Hutton would not confirm the specific penalties.

"The remaining student-athletes are very disappointed by the panel's rulings and are exploring their options in consultation with their families," Hutton said.

The four players facing expulsion were suspended last fall after a woman reported multiple players pressured her into having sex in September. An investigative report by the university indicated in December that additional players were in the vicinity of or knew about the alleged assault and failed to intervene.

All 10 players implicated were held out of the Holiday Bowl. Their teammates staged a short-lived boycott, calling the disciplinary process unfair and accusing school administrators of lying to them.

Coach Tracy Claeys tweeted support for the boycott and was fired a week after the bowl game win. P.J. Fleck was hired to replace him three days later.

Relief for those cleared

Winfield's father, Antoine Winfield Sr., said his son will return to the team. He reportedly texted KSTP-TV, "Feels like 1000 lbs has been lifted off him. Time to go back to work. God is good!!"

"Blessed man!!!! Ready to get back at it with my boys!" McCrary tweeted Friday.

None of the players face criminal charges.

Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman called the players' behavior "deplorable" and considered charging some of them for either forcing the woman or having sex with her while she was too intoxicated to consent. He ultimately declined, saying he couldn't prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed a crime.

The standard for finding the players responsible for student conduct violations is far different from that of a criminal court. The U panel was asked to determine whether the players "more likely than not" committed the violations.

The U's Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action office made the initial recommendations for punishing the players. All 10 challenged the penalties during more than 18 hours of hearings Jan. 26 and 27 before a three-person panel appointed by the U.

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