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Minnesota Gopher Football: Why Max Shortell should start over MarQueis Gray against Michigan

Someone besides head coach Jerry Kill has a very difficult decision to make this week: who starts at quarterback this Saturday against Michigan, and perhaps for the rest of the season. It'll likely be made by associate head coach Bill Miller, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and QB coach Jim Zebrowski, and while it certainly isn't an easy decision, there looks to be one obvious choice: start true freshman Max Shortell over junior MarQueis Gray.

It's not that Shortell is demonstrably better than Gray right now, because he's not. Shortell is completing just 46.4% (13-28) of his passes for 196 yards 2 TD's and 3 picks for a QB rating of just 114.5. Compare that to Gray who is completing 50.6% (39-77) of his passes for 521 yards 3 TD's and 3 picks for a QB rating of 112.6. Shortell's passing stats are only slightly better, yet to the eye test, Shortell has looked much more comfortable throwing the ball- especially from the pocket- than Gray has. But of course that's not the whole story, as Gray has been as good as advertised running the ball, leading the Gophers with 410 yards on 71 carries. Q basically won the Miami of Ohio game by himself with his running ability, whereas Shortell has done fine running the ball (7 for 39) but nobody's going to be confused on who the better runner is.

So wait- if Shortell's numbers are only marginally better as a passer and Gray's the superior runner, how is the answer not Gray? Glad you asked.

Two reasons...

The first is that Jerry Kill has made clear we're (re)building this program on solid foundation, not sand. No short cuts, no short term fixes that might help this season, but hinder things down the road. Those aren't supposed to be an option. So how can we then look at having a junior who really experience-wise as a QB is like a freshman starting over an actual true freshman. If we're building this program on a solid foundation, then wouldn't getting Max Shortell playing time now better prepare him for future seasons as the Gopher starter? You could make a case for either guy right now, but they're not demonstrably better with either quarterback running the show. So shouldn't that tip the scales towards Shortell?

It should for the second reason, which is that pulling MarQueis as your starter doesn't mean he's holding a clip board. If he'd be willing, Shortell at QB means Gray goes back to WR, which would immensely improve the passing game. Shortell has already proven he's comfortable throwing in the pocket, and can you imagine how much better he'd be, and how much more difficult it would be for defenses to prepare for the Gophers, if Shortell could throw to Da'Jon McKnight AND MarQueis Gray? Not to mention Malcom Moulton, Marcus Jones, Eric Lair on others. Moulton has had a nice start to the season (11 catches for 150) but he and the Gophers would be better served if he's the slot receiver instead of playing outside opposite McKnight. Having Da'Jon on one side and the 6'4 245 pound Gray on the other would be all sorts of fun to watch and a nightmare for defenses to cover.

Not only that, you could use Gray in a Percy Harvin-style role, having plays for him where he lines up in the backfield or takes sweeps off a reverse or motion play. You keep the considerable running gifts of Gray in the offense AND the addition of a legit Big Ten receiver by moving Q to wide receiver while adding a better passing quarterback in Shortell. It's a better move for long term AND the short term, and you can't argue this offense wouldn't be better in that scenario.

The only question is whether Q would go for it. He's worked his tail off all offseason to be the quarterback and leader for this team. He made it perfectly clear in the offseason he wants to play quarterback, not wide receiver, so I don't know how he would take it if the coaches came to him and asked him to move. He does have that redshirt year still available, so he COULD threaten to transfer somewhere else, but I hope not. Let's be honest, if Q has a future of playing on Sunday's, it's going to be at receiver, not QB, so this would be excellent preparation for him.

I do love Q, and I love the effort and passion he plays quarterback with, but the best thing for him and the entire offense is to put Shortell at QB and Gray at WR. Obviously I'm going to support him and the team regardless of what position he plays, but now, and for the long term, Q would help the most at wide receiver. It's a tough decision for the coaches to make, but I think that's the right decision.