I want to make one thing clear. The Gophers do not have a quarterback controversy. Just like over the last two years, I do not believe there ever was really a controversy about who should be starting between Adam Weber and MarQueis Gray. It is well established that my position was simply this, Adam Weber gave us the best chance to win and the team was in a place where they were trying to win. If the Gophers are most concerned with winning, MarQueis Gray gives them the best chance to do that, right now.
I do not generally subscribe to the "EA Sports football" mentality that when your season isn't going to result in a good bowl game you throw in the towel and start playing young guys for next year. After the first year of Tim Brewster they were in a place where they needed to be winning and they were trying to win games every Saturday. It was painfully obvious after a few games last year that the 2010 season was lost, but Brewster was fighting for his
job career and eventually that team showed they were capable of winning. You don't start benching seniors and playing freshmen. You do that when playing Madden, fans may want to see that, but coaches do not operate that way.
With that said, that is exactly what I am suggesting for the 2011 Gophers. Start getting ready for 2012. I think coaches get one chance and one chance only to do this. Over the course of Kill's tenure as the Gopher's head coach you may see this at a position or two, but wholesale changes to who gets playing time can only happen once. This is that time. Your first season is when you can chalk up poor play to the previous staff. Kill is trying to teach discipline, Kill is trying to teach consistency and Kill is trying to get his system in place. A few years down the road he needs to have his program in a place where the uppperclassmen are executing with discipline and consistency while they teach the freshmen how things work here. It becomes a plug-n-play system. Right now he is trying to teach that to everyone. Time to start spending your time on the guys who can affect change next year.
I generally hate this mentality and I should clarify what I am proposing. I am not proposing messing with your starting lineup but it is time to start giving significant playing time to underclassmen and giving them a lot of reps to prepare them. Your seniors are valuable commodities and they shouldn't end up forever benched, there are a number of Gophers who have put in their time, been through a lot and they don't deserve to be benched because they were caught in the middle of a coaching change. Kim Royston is a great example of a kid who has done nothing to deserve being benched. But him playing 90% of the snaps over the next eight games does nothing to prepare those behind him to be higher impact players.
I'll reiterate, I think you get one chance to do this. If you want to start the Big Ten season the same way you started the first four games I can understand. But assuming Michigan puts a big hurt on us, we really need to see some changes for the Purdue game.
Basically you have four groups of players in this mess. The first group is the quarterback situation. The second group is those who have a shot at playing professionally (however small it may be). The next group is senior starters and what do you do with them. And the final group are those who are already underclassmen who are starting, you leave those guys alone.
1 - The Quarterback Situation.
I am actually not going to demand that Max Shortell begin starting. To be honest he is getting incredibly valuable reps and experience already. I believe it would be best for everyone if he were to be starting at QB but Gray not only adds some things to the offense and but he is also exciting to watch. Shortell needs reps and he needs to lead drives. I don't care if he starts but he needs to get the offense on a few change of possessions and he needs to lead that drive from start to finish. Starting would be best but if they are not willing to move Gray back to WR full-time then give Shortell at minimum three full series each game, though it should really be more.
2 - Those Who Have a Shot at the NFL
You cannot stunt the growth of guys who have a shot at playing on Sundays next year. Da'Jon McKnight should not be benched in favor of Devin Crawford-Tufts. It sends a bad message and you don't want to go down this road. This group should include guys like McKnight, Eric Lair, Troy Stoudermire, Brandon Kirksey and even Gary Tinsley. They have a shot at making an NFL roster (however slim it may be) and deserve the chance to get better and hopefully further their career. You can give them a few more reps off which keeps them fresh but they still get to play basically the same percentage of snaps that they have been playing all year.
Part of this equation really should be moving Gray back to receiver. He is only a junior and he really has a shot at playing receiver in the NFL. Convince him of this, give him a year and a half to get better as a receiver. In the long run that will be better for him and better for the Gophers.
3 - Other Senior Starters
Unless they are being outperformed. Give respect to your seniors, but unless they fall into #2 above, then their reps should be reduced. I'm thinking about guys like the three starters along the OL. I'm OK with them starting, but give some of the younger guys a chance to get reps. Tommy Olson doesn't need to start to gain valuable experience but if he were to get 25-30% of the snaps that would be dramatically more beneficial than the 0% snaps he is getting now. Kim Royston, Christyn Lewis, Anthony Jacobs, Ryan Wynn, Ryan Orton, Chris Bunders and Duane Bennett can remain starters but there needs to be more of a transition of reps to their younger back-ups. Seniors coming off the bench will see their reps decline further. I do have great appreciation for the seniors who have endured a career of difficult transitions. They are a lot of stand-up guys who have given a lot to the program. This is an opportunity to sacrifice further for the good and future of the program. They will be able to take pride in the development of guys like T. Olson, James Manuel, Donnell Kirkwood and others when they go on to contributing to a winning team.
It is really easy to come down hard on a number of positions and say just wipe them out and start over with the young kids. But that is easier to say from a distance. If we realistically want to see younger guys getting more reps, the only way it happens is by leaving your starters alone and increasing reps of the younger guys. We also do not have any idea how great the drop-off is from one senior starter to his younger backup. The difference between Chris Bunders and Tommy Olson may not be much (I'm guessing). But maybe the difference between Ryan Wynn and Zach Mottla is far too significant to even consider making that change. I don't know and that is a decision for the coaches to make, I just hope they consider making it.
I'm not asking for wholesale roster changes that will divide the team, piss off your leadership and send a message to others that this staff doesn't care or respect it's seniors. But more reps, more teachable moments and more film to evaluate those who will be contributing next year is necessary at this point.
Next year's team needs to be better (duh right?). I don't want to hear press conferences about the team not understanding what is expected of them. I want to see a team that knows their responsibilities and can direct all brain function towards making plays. That teaching process starts now.