I know, I know, I know: According to head coach Jerry Kill, every position is up for grabs this spring, and that includes quarterback. Despite all of the good things Kill and OC Matt Limegrover have had to say about MarQueis Gray and his potential to take over the starting job, they're also saying it's a wide open battle. Incoming freshman Max Shortell says he wants to start as a freshman? "Great!" say the coaches.
I understand that with a new coaching staff everyone starts with a clean slate and a chance to compete, but I'd be shocked if anyone but #5 comes out of spring practice as Minnesota's #1 QB. Gray was the second rated dual-threat QB coming out of high school in Indianapolis, and looks to be a perfect fit for the style of offense Kill and Limegrover ran the past few years at NIU, which was run heavy and had the QB running plenty of option. The coaches have also said they believe Gray can and will be able to throw the ball, and he'll need to in order to keep defenses honest. While he played WR almost exclusively last season, even the limited snaps he got under center (or usually behind center in the shotgun) at QB are more experience than any other QB on the roster. He's the lead candidate by a mile, and he has a further advantage in that Shortell won't show up until the summer, where Gray gets a month of spring practice and scrimages to learn Limegrover's offense.
If Gray doesn't exit spring ball as the starter then we can kiss any hopes of a bowl game in 2011 goodbye, because I just don't see anyone else capable of stepping in and performing well enough in the new offense to get the team to six wins. Not only that, we can kiss Gray goodbye too, because he made it clear after the season ended he wants to be a quarterback, and only a quarterback. If Kill and Limegrover don't deem him worthy of starting here, he still has a redshirt season to use, and could transfer to another D1 school, sit out a year, and still have a junior and senior season of eligibility remaining. While Gray moving back to wideout would improve the receiving core enormously, it's just not going to happen; MarQueis is either our starting QB in 2011 or he's gone. But I don't think that's an issue, as I haven't heard or read anyone around the program ever question his work ethic, and if he's willing to work and put in the time to learn a new offense, someone as gifted athletically as Gray is will win the starting job.
So if MarQueis is the starter, who's going to be our #2? The competition should become wide open...
If you look at the offense Kill ran in his 3 years at NIU, you saw one starting QB, Chandler Harnish, and you saw him run the option. Gray fits the mold of that kind of offense perfectly, because he's a much better athlete than Harnish, and watching him throw in spring ball the past couple of seasons, he LOOKS like he can be as good a passer (I'm not an expert, but Gray's throwing motion looks fluid and effortless). But comments recently from the coaches have changed my mind that the offense we saw at NIU isn't always what they want to do: it just may be they felt Harnish gave them the best chance to win, and his strengths involved being able to run the ball, so that's what they did. But what about a classic drop-back passer like Shortell? The coaches seem to love the kid, and love his moxie, even though he's a very different prospect than Gray, considering he was timed at only a 4.95 40 yard dash. So how does he fit into a team that's run a lot option? They tailor the offense a little bit to their QB, with less option running and more traditional running schemes. At least that's my best guess, because there's no way they'd be recruiting a kid like Shortell, and talking him up as they have been, if he's going to be expected to run the option as much as someone like MarQueis will.
So despite Shortell's bravado and talent, if he doesn't start this fall (which I think he won't) then he's going to redshirt this year. I just don't see how he can miss all of spring practice and walk in here and start while the other QB's get real reps in learning the offense for a month this spring. Could happen, but I doubt it. But fear not, as the Gophers have plenty of talent behind Gray and besides Shortell. I have to say, this is the best I've felt about our quarterbacking situation in a long, long time. Part of that is the talent at the position on the roster, and the other is the belief that we have finally have a coaching staff who knows how to develop them and get the most out of the talents of every guy.
While I do believe MarQueis is the only QB right now with the potential to get us to a bowl game, by this time next year I feel like any number of guys behind him on the depth chart will be able to step in and lead the team. For all of my problems with Brewster and Adam Weber, my biggest was that Brewster failed year after year to have anyone else even remotely capable of running the offense if something happened to Weber (something like injury, or awful play, or showing a complete inability to throw a timing pattern. You know, something like that). Last year when Weber was ineffective yet again and the offense stunk, OC Jeff Horton and Brewster's excuse for why the couldn't play Gray or Alipate or anyone else was because they were simply unprepared. Baffling and inexcusbale. I ranted enough about that last season so I'll save you another one, but bottom line I know we're never ever going to hear from Kill or Limegrover that noone but the starter is prepared or capable of running the offense. Will they be as good as the starter at running the offense? Probably not, but at least they'll be prepared as possible for the opportunity.
Anyway, this whole tailoring-of-the-offense doesn't just mean Shortell will be able to compete despite not being a dual-threat QB, but it's also great news for another big, cannon-armed QB on the roster, redshirt soph Moses Alipate. He came in the same recruiting year as Gray as a 3 star prospect with plenty of promise, and when I saw the offense Kill ran at NIU, I was worried that would be it for Alipate at Minnesota. A 235 pound pocket passer in THAT offense? But we've heard narry a peep from Alipate about transferring thus far, which says to me he's buying into what the coaches are saying about his fit in the offense and his chance to compete for playing time. If shows up for camp in shape, with his ability you have to think he has the inside track on the backup job.
However, there's two intriguing redshirt freshmen who will challenge for him for #2. Tim Brewster stole Hartland, Wisconsin native Tom Parish out of the Badgers' backyard, as Parish was rated as the #2 player in the entire state of Beer, Brats, and Cheese in 2009. Playing for Sconnie high school power Arrowhead (my brother-in-law played against Arrowhead in high school, and said they usually have a pipeline straight to UW-Madison for their best players) Rivals rated Parish the 15th best dual-threat QB and a three-star rating from everybody. He's 6'3 200 pounds, said to have good accuracy and a decent arm, and with a 4.6 40 yard dash time, is definitely a "dual threat." JD Pride is a Minnesota product from Totino-Grace and is smaller than Parish at just 6'1 and 190, but even more athletic (4.5 40 apparently). Was scouted as having a good enough arm, and although he was recruited by Brewster as an "athlete" he's still listed as a QB on the depth chart.
Really tough to handicap everybody's chances, but at gun point I like Parish coming out as the #2 guy. A total gut feeling, and nothing against Alipate or Pride, but that's just my feeling right now. They beauty of these things, and what will make it so intriguing, is you really never know. The coaching staff knows this offense best, and they could have a totally different view of who fits best with what they want to do. The backup QB spot will be one of many camp battles to watch when spring ball starts in a few weeks.