Spring ball is on and we're getting a lot of good reports from practice. Honeslty, how can you not love the Gopher football coverage we're getting in this town, and all across the interwebs? Phil Miller and Marcus Fuller do a great job for the dailies, both local "sports" stations have ramped up their coverage, and FBT and Josh Katzenstein of the MNDaily are doing professional quality work for free. It's really awesome coverage.
It also helps that the new coaching staff is making such a big impression. Another round of Kill Koolaid anyone? Kill and his staff come across as honest, hard-working, and no-nonsense, and despite the fact they're still almost 5 months away from coaching their first game, I feel infinitely better about the Gophers now than I did under Brewster. Granted, I was the guy who this time last year was really excited for our defense, for MarQueis Gray getting a chance to compete for the starting QB gig, and a bunch of other stuff that never panned out. But hey, thanks to interim coach Jeff Horton- WE BEAT IOWA! Suck it, Hawkeyes.
Anyway, there's been a lot of talk and focus on junior quarterback MarQueis Gray, and rightfully so. The guy coach Kill has started calling "Q" seems to be taking to the new offense and new coaches like a fish to water. While Kill hasn't officially named him the starter, barring injury I'd be shocked if it's anyone but Q taking the first snap from center for the Gophers Sept 3 in the LA Coliseum against USC.
I've had a very tough time tempering my expectations for #5, as the more I read about him the more I fall in love (I'm not quite at the mancrush level GN has for Adam Weber, but I'm getting there). We've been enamoured with Q's physical gifts since he got here, but the knock we always heard about him from the previous coaching staff is "he's just not ready to play quarterback." Last year, when Weber was struggling (again) and fans were asking why Q wasn't getting more playing time, Brewster and Horton's response made it sound like Gray had a better chance of flying to the moon than being able to run the offense.
Yet this offseason, all we've heard and read from coaches and reporters is how hard Q is working, how much time he's putting in for preparation and film study, and how he's taking the leadership role very seriously. So what happened to MarQueis between last year and this offseason? What changed, if anything?
Just today Phil Miller has a blog post about Matt Limegrover's offense and how much responsibility the QB has in making reads and decisions both presnap, and during the play, on EVERY play:
Roughly 80 percent of Minnesota's offensive plays, Limegrover said, will involve decision-making by the QB after reading the defense's alignment...
...Right or left, inside or out, run or pass, and to who -- "our gameplan is heavy on 'check-with-quarterback' plays," Limegrover said. "Our system depends on the quarterback putting the offense in the best position to succeed. He's got a lot of responsibility in reading the defense and reacting to it before the ball is snapped."
Certainly, the MarQueis who wasn't ready to run (m)any of Tim Brewster's offenses the past few seasons would NEVER be able to grasp such a scheme and responsibility as Limegrover is asking for right?
"So this has been a nice surprise for us, how well (Gray's) handled all the reads," the coordinator said. "He's still got a long way to go, but he's really picking up what we need him to do."
The Dude would say "That's ****ing interesting, man" and I would agree with him (after all, The Dude abides). It IS interesting that the previous coaching staff seemed to have zero confidence that Q could run the offense, and yet the new staff seems to grow more and more confident of him every day. My question, and one I haven't seen asked of him yet but would love to hear, is what changed? Or maybe, did something change at all? Was MarQueis not putting in the right amount of work and time to compete for the quarterback job in previous seasons, or was he just never given a fair shake?
I know what I WANT the answer to be: I want to blame it on Brewster because I was never a big fan of Brewster or Weber. I want the answer to be that Timmy was going to ride Adam Weber as his starter no matter what because Brewster was coaching for his job the past two seasons. He couldn't chance playing an inexperienced kid like MarQueis, and because Weber gave him the best chance to win in the short term, then Q OBVIOUSLY was never given a real opportunity to win the starting job away from Weber. That's what I want to believe happened, but I have no idea if that's true and we may never know.
The other explanation is that Q is a 20 year old kid, and it just took him three seasons for the light to go on. Wouldn't be the first time, and wouldn't be the last time it took a teenager a few years to mature in college, and for his decision making and dedication to grow as he learns what it takes to succeed at the collegiate level. Q dominated high school because he was just that much better than everyone else, and perhaps he had to learn that all the talent in the world doesn't make you a great QB. Perhaps he just had to learn that if he wants to be great and be a leader and play QB, it's not going to be given to him. If he wants to play quarterback for the University of Minnesota he has to go out there and earn it, and it starts with hardwork in the offseason in the weight room and the film room.
It could also be a little bit of both. Perhaps the old coaching staff just didn't quite know how to use Q properly. Limegrover told Miller they knew Gray had ability, but just had no idea what to expect:
"It's not like we were saying, 'let's make him a receiver instead.' We just had no way of knowing how he would handle the responsibility at the line," Limegrover said. The Gopher coaches watched a reel made up of every snap Gray has taken for the Gophers, but it didn't help much, Limegrover said, because nearly every play was in the "wildcat" formation, with a predetermined play.
That was my biggest frustration with how Q was used the past couple of years: he wasn't allowed to come in and run a full series of plays, but instead was brought in for a play here and another there to run the Wildcat. Defenses figured out pretty quickly he was either handing the ball off up the gut or running to the outside, and they shut it down as the season went on. And when they did let him throw, he was so out of rhythm he was ineffective as a passer. It was tough to get any kind of idea what kind of a QB Gray could be because he wasn't given a real opportunity to run the real offense in a game. It was also tough to know what to expect because of how little confidence the previous regime seemed to have in him.
I love the story from Miller's piece yesterday about Gray that Q was waiting in new QB coach Jim Zebrowski's office wanting to learn the offense before Zebrowski had even had time to unpack. There's more stories there and in other articles about just how hard Gray's worked this off-season and how dedicated he's become to being Minnesota's starting QB this year. I have a hard time believing that if he had showed this much passion for the position in the past that there's no way he could have been overlooked by Brewster and his staff, but then again, this IS Tim Brewster so I wouldn't put anything past him.
As with most things, I'm sure the answer to this riddle lies somewhere in the middle. I will go to my grave believing Gray was never truly given a fair shake at unseating Weber, but he may have also not realized how much work was necessary to win the job. Even if Gray were asked the question, he might not answer it, and we may never know what happened behind the scenes with Q and Brewster.
And I suppose, in the grand scheme of things, it really doesn't matter. What DOES matter is that we're seeing an athlete as talented as MarQueis who is showing a passion to succeed and to lead the Golden Gopher football program in 2011. While I'm trying to temper my expectations, I can't help but be very, very excited about where he's going to take the team and what possibilities lie ahead with #5 behind center.