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Minnesota Gopher Football 2011 Preview: Quarterbacks- Upgrade/Downgrade

For the first time in four seasons, Gopher football will not only have a new coach, but a new starting quarterback. Gone is Adam Weber, a four year starter who left as the Gophers' all-time leader in just about every major passing category, including yards, TD's...and interceptions. In 2010, Weber completed 55.7% of his passes for 2679 yards, 20 TD's and just 9 picks for a QB efficiency rating of 129.9, and also ran for another 288 yards. In case you were wondering (and I figured you were) he averaged the fourth-most passing yards per game in the Big Ten, his 20 TD's tied for 5th, and his QB efficiency rating ranked 9th.

Weber was the scapegoat for the Gophers problems under former coach Tim Brewster, yet according to recent reports has been impressive enough in Broncos training camp that he may earn a spot on the roster. Weber clearly has some talent, and while he displayed it at times as a Gopher, and had a difficult road with a new system and coaches seemingly every season, he wasn't the most popular amongst Gopher fans (including yours truly).

The biggest complaint about Weber during his four years as a starter- and especially the last two- was about something he had zero control over- how much he played. Brewster, who was coaching for his job the past two seasons, stuck with Weber through thick and thin. While he certainly had some strong games, when Weber and the offense were obviously struggling, Brewster refused to take him out and play backup MarQueis Gray- or ANYBODY else. For me anyway- and I doubt I'm alone on this one- my biggest frustration from the Adam Weber Era wasn't actually with Weber; it was with Brewster for giving him an unlimited leash and seemingly no accountability for how well or how poorly he played.

That will definitely change with new coach Jerry Kill. He's not coaching for his job this season, but instead is going through the slow, and potentially painful, process of rebuilding. Junior MarQueis Gray will be your starter this Saturday against USC, and is the most qualified to play quarterback and run Kill and OC Matt Limegrover's run-based attack. While I have a lot of faith in Gray as our quarterback, you know Kill won't hesistate to bench him if he struggles.

A look at the 2011 Gopher quarterbacks after the jump...

With his limited experience, Gray is not going to be the best passer in the Big Ten this season, but he won't have to be for this offense to be successful. I didn't realize just how little experience Gray has in high school and college throwing passes. He did not come from a pass-heavy offense at Ben Davis high in Indianapolis, as he attempted only 140 passes as a junior (and only completed 73 of them), and then missed the majority of his senior season with an arm injury, attempting just 41 passes. He then missed his first year out of high school due to academics in 2008, practiced as a QB as a freshman in 2009, then played exclusively at wide receiver last year. Compare that with a guy like Weber, who played QB all through high school at Mounds View, redshirted his freshman year at the U where he at least got a lot of practice reps, then threw 449 passes his first year as a stater. 449? I won't say Gray hasn't thrown that many passes in his entire life, but you get the idea. Q just hasn't had the development time he'd need (or like) to be an outstanding throwing quarterback.

But as we outlined Friday, he won't have to. Kill and Limegrover would like to run the ball almost twice as much as they throw, and that includes having the quarterback be a feature runner. In his first season in the offense at NIU, freshman QB Chandler Harnish led the team in rushing attempts (part of that, of course, is due to the archaic and stupid rule that says sacks should count against a quarterback as a rushing attempt and negative rushing yards. Stupid. Unless the QB actually tucks it and goes or is tackled for a loss on a designed run, it should count as negative team passing yards like it does in the NFL), rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. Sure, Harnish was running against MAC teams while Gray will have to go against some excellent B1G defenses, but Q is also a better athlete than Harnish will ever be. I'm not ready to predict a Denard Robinson-type of breakout performance, but it's very possible Q could be the Gophers' leading rusher in 2011.

As a passer, the idea is for the run to set up the pass, and if the run game is working, that should lead to some good throwing opportunities. Expect plenty of roll-outs and play-action passing, which IF the run game is working should mean some success for Gray throwing the ball. Of course, he's going to have some third-and-longs to complete and there's going to be games where the Gophers are down, the defense knows the pass is coming, and Q's going to have to make some throws. Still, in Harnish's first season as a starter, where as an inexperienced quarterback playing in this offense for the first time, he completed 55.9% of his passes for just 1528 yards and 8 TD's against 9 picks, and only attempted 211 passes in 10 games played. Again, Weber attempted more than twice that many-449- as a freshman in his first year starting, completing 57% of this throws, yet he and Harnish had about the same passer efficiency rating of 120 as first year staters. Q is a far better athlete than either guy, and if he can complete 55% of his passes in 2011, I think he and the offense will be in pretty good shape.

IF Gray struggles and Kill decides it's time to go to the backup, the first guy off the bench could very well be a true freshman. Max Shortell is a 6'6 Kansas native who Kill has been raving about since he signed him in February, and we've gotten the chance to see why as Shortell walked into fall camp and in just three weeks has moved up to #2 on the depth chart. He's made his share of mistakes, but he sure doesn't look like a true freshman out there. Shortell looks the part of a wily veteran, and runs the second team like he's been doing it in this offense for years. Who the hell knows what he'd look like on game day, or even just against the first team defense, but he's been impressive, and it seems like he will not be redshirted this fall.

Battling Shortell for the backup job is redshirt freshman Tom Parish, a 6'3 dual threat QB from Wisconsin high school power Arrowhead high. Parish was one of the rare kids the Gophers have been able to pull out of the Badger state, and even moreso considering his father AND grand father both played for Wisconsin. He's a dangerous runner, and while he doesn't have a cannon arm, has been pretty accurate in camp. He and Shortell split the second team reps in the last public Saturday scrimmage, but it's likely Parish is third right now.

In that last Saturday public scrimmage another true freshman, Dexter Foreman, came in to run the 3rd team. Foreman ran a spread-option offense in high school, and was very good in it, and Kill obviously liked his ability enough to offer him a late scholarship. He also has a fantastic Fresh Prince of Bel Aire-circa early 1990's flat top going. Look at his profile pic- it's a thing of beauty.

Junior Adam Lueck is a former walk-on from Eden Prairie, and the team's holder on field goals and extra points, but likely won't factor into the depth chart at quarterback. Finally, former Bloomington Jefferson star Moses Alipate, who was ranked as one of the top 30 quarterback prospects in the country in the 2009 class, is currently buried on the depth chart behind at least Shortell and Parish. At the moment it's doubtful he'll take a snap as a Gopher quarterback, and may have to change positions if he wants to see the field. At a listed 276 pounds, may we suggest tight end or defensive end.

It could be a little tricky to compare how the Gopher quarterback position in 2011 compares to how Adam Weber did in 2010 because the offenses will be so different. I have a feeling the barometer a lot of people will use will be wins. Weber led the Gophers to just three, so fairly or not, if the Gophers get more than three in 2011, they'll probably look at the QB position as a success. As stated earlier, if Gray can complete at least 55% of his passes, I think he and the offense will do well. He likely won't throw for as many yards or TD's as Weber did, but if he can keep defenses honest with the pass, that should be enough for a solid season for him and the offense.

What say you?