Lost a bit amongst all the hoopla with the new jerseys was news that sophomore QB Tom Parish has decided to transfer. Parish was a three star recruit from the heart of Badger country, as he starred at Wisconsin high school power Arrowhead. At 6'3 with an accurate arm and good athleticism, he looked a perfect fit to run Jerry Kill's offense, but got lost in the shuffle as he dropped to third on the depth chart in 2012.
While it wasn't out of the realm of possibility that Parish could have fought his way to be MarQueis Gray's backup this year, he would have started the spring as the #3, and with a certain super-duper freshman already on campus, could have potentially slipped further behind. No word on where Parish will transfer to but we wish him the best (as long as it's not the QB needy Badgers, of course).
So with the loss of Parish, what does this do to the Gophers' QB depth chart? No change at the top obviously (or the bottom, for that matter) but there's some battles to be had for the 2-4 spots...
Starter: MarQueis Gray, senior (eligibility as of fall 2012)
Q is the unquestioned leader of the team, and the offense, for the upcoming season. He was far and away the team's most effective and dangerous runner, and that's not likely to change in 2012. Although having someone-or even several someones- step up as a viable option at running back to replace departed senior Duane Bennett is a must for this offense to make some progress. Where Gray needs to show improvement is in the passing game, as he completed only 50.6% of his passes in 2011. Performances like the Michigan State loss, where he completed 19 of 32 passes for 295 yards and 3 TD's, showed the potential is there to be a capable passer, and hopefully another full offseason will help him get there. Q showed last offseason that work ethic won't be an issue, so if the guys around him can put in the same kind of effort, we'll hopefully see the kind of jump in offensive production Jerry Kill's teams usually show from year 1 to year 2. If that happens, Q could be an all-conference quarterback.
Primary Backup: Max Shortell, true sophomore vs. Philip Nelson, true freshman
And here's where things get REALLY interesting...
Last season Shortell was the highly-touted incoming freshman, and despite the fact he was not an early enrollee and only had a month of summer practice to prepare, he ALMOST took the starting job from Q. The Ginger Giant looked promising in spot duty vs USC in the opener, and ended up starting two games while Gray was out with injury. However, the offense struggled under Shortell in those two starts (obviously that wasn't all his fault. Far from it, actually), and once Gray returned healthy, the team improved and Q finished the season undisputed as "The Man."
Shortell will start the spring #2 on the depth chart, and you'd assume that with his primary competition in Parish transferring, he'll have no problem hanging onto the job. But he may not only be in jeopardy of losing the #2 job, but he may also be in danger of losing the status of "future starter." That's because this years highly-touted incoming freshman, Philip Nelson of Mankato West, DID enroll early, and is already on campus and will be at spring practice and ready to compete.
Sure, Shortell will have a leg up having more experience running the offense. At 6'6 he showed the skills of a pocket passer and better-than-you'd-think athleticism for a guy of his size, but for all the good things Max brings to the table, Nelson is potentially better- at all of them. Nelson is a special prospect, and the best QB recruit since MarQueis in 2008. At 6'3 and already 223 pounds he has great size, and a helluva an arm. He was named Minnesota's AP player of the year with 2,784 yards and 35 TD's in 12 games. Oh, and he runs well too, to the tune of 1243 and 20 rushing TD's. While few QB's are in MarQueis' class as an athlete and runner, he's clearly athletic enough to run Jerry Kill's option offense, and be dangerous when he carries the ball. But the exciting part is that he's much further ahead as a passer than where Gray was coming out of high school, as Nelson threw for over 7,564 yards and 94 TD's in his high school career (both second all time in the state of Minnesota).
The question is, how fast will Nelson adjust to the college game, and how well will he pick up the offense? Actually, that's not THE question of the spring for me. The question is what if he's as good as advertised and looks like the second best QB coming out of the spring? No matter how good he looks there's no well Nelson starts as a freshman unless Gray gets hurt. They burned Shortell's redshirt season because he was the clear #2 (and for awhile there, an almost #1) but would they burn Nelson's for the same reason? IF, and right now it's just an if, but IF Nelson beats Shortell for the backup job, it wouldn't be the worst idea to not shirt him, have him get a ton of reps in practice as the #2, and then make him that much more prepared to take over the starting job in 2013.
And of course then we have to wonder what would happen to Shortell in that situation...
It's also likely Shortell has a great spring, and starts the season as the clear #2. In that case, Nelson redshirts, and those two wage battle for the starting job in 2013 with Shortell having the inside track.
Mitch Leidner, true freshman
Of course, there's more than just Shortell and Nelson vying for position behind Gray, and Nelson isn't even the only true freshman who enrolled early. Leidner was a lightly recruited QB out of Lakeville South who was being recruited as a tight end before lighting up a Gopher passing camp last summer, which earned him an offer from Coach Kill as a quarterback. Leidner had a solid senior season, and is a big kid (6'4 and 220) with a live arm, but he's not anywhere near the athlete Nelson is. Kill clearly saw something in the kid to offer him as a QB, and he's going to be given an opportunity to prove it. I'd say it's almost a given he'll redshirt, and if he can't pass Nelson on the depth chart in the next two seasons, it's likely he's moved to tight end. A situation not unlike to..
Moses Alipate, RS junior
Moses was a highly decorated pocket passing recruit out of Bloomington Jefferson in 2009, but after redshirting in 2009, Alipate couldn't beat out Gray for the backup job in 2010, and last season wasn't even considered one of the top three QB's on the roster. The big fella, and I do mean BIG at 6'4 and at least 270 pounds, isn't suited to run the option offense and frankly I'm surprised he hasn't either switched positions or transferred. That highly decorated high school recruit is still in that rather large frame somewhere, so while it's possible Alipate could slim down and come out guns a blazing in the spring and compete for the backup job, it doesn't seem likely.
Dexter Foreman, RS freshman
Foreman was a late signee last season as a 2-star dual-purpose QB from Texas. A good athlete with a decent arm, he redshirted last year, and we'll see how he looks against everyone else.