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Minnesota Gopher Football: Philip Nelson as starting QB in 2012 gives hope for this season and beyond

Whatever his reasons, Jerry Kill decided the time is now for true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. As long as he starts the rest of this season, it's the right call for 2012 and makes the Gophers potentially that much better for 2013 and beyond.


The timing seemed a little strange, like the decision came completely out of the blue. Prior to the Wisconsin game, Minnesota's seventh of the season, head coach Jerry Kill and his staff seemed intent on red shirting prized freshman quarterback Philip Nelson. The Mankato high star, who according to his Scout page had received interest from B1G schools like Iowa, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Michigan State, seemed the perfect fit for Coach Kill's read-option run offense as a dual-threat QB with 4.5 speed, an accurate arm (his senior year he completed 159 of 238 passes for 2559 yards and 35 TD's against just four picks), and the smarts to know when to use them. The 2012 winner of the Minnesota Mr Football and E!SPN Minnesota Gatorade Player of the year was an under-the-radar recruit as he committed to Minnesota very early in the process. Scout and Rivals both gave him a three star grade, and ranked him as one of the 40 best quarterbacks in the country. Tom Lemming, who has been a high school scout for 30+ years, was by far the most bullish on Nelson, calling him the second-ranked pro-style QB in the country (not a typo), the 40th best player in the entire country, and his National Sleeper of the Year.

Nelson will get his opportunity to prove the scouts right or wrong earlier than expected, as without notice (well it came, but not until Friday night before the game) the red shirt came off and he started his first game against his dad's alma mater Wisconsin. While he didn't lead the Gophers to a big upset (Minnesota has now lost nine straight to UW and still haven't won in Madison since 1994), Nelson, according to those in attendance and smarter than me, said he looked poised and confident in his first start in a hostile environment. Nelson went 13-24 (54%) for 149 yards, 2 TD's and 2 picks, and also led the team with 16 carries for 67 yards for a respectable 4.2 yard average. We found out after the game that starting tailback and leading rusher Donnell Kirkwood was banged up, which explains why he barely played or carried the ball, and why, on a team who has really struggled to find anyone but Kirkwood or its quarterbacks to carry the ball, Nelson had to carry it so much himself.

Overall the numbers, and the results, are obviously not great, but it's also not bad for his very start considering not just that it was the first start of his career, but that his best running back was hobbled, and four of five opening day starters on the offensive linemen as well as two of the top wide receivers (Isaac Fruechte and Devin Crawford-Tufts) didn't play at all due to injury.

Whatever Kill's reasoning for removing the "shirt"- we've heard it was mostly due to injuries to MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell, but also possibly that they weren't happy with Shortell's performance- what matters now is Nelson is the guy, and Kill has made it sound like he'll be the guy for the rest of the season. If that's the case, then getting five six starts to close this season was not only the right move, but it should make the team that much better for next season. We've talked before on this blog about how next season is the one where the Gophers could really make some strides, as the vast majority of their team will return intact, including almost their entire offense except for MarQueis Gray. The expectation was Gray would be the QB this season, and Nelson and Shortell would battle for the starting gig next spring giving us an experienced offense surrounding a rather inexperienced QB.

Now, while this definitely isn't the ideal situation for Gray, it gives Nelson six games (including the one just played) against tough Big Ten competition, and assuming he can stay healthy (which, given the state of health of not just the quarterbacks but the entire offensive group, is unfortunately far from a given) should make him that much more prepared to lead the team next season and beyond. While I'm not ready to punt the 2012 season entirely (I still believe Minnesota can beat Purdue this weekend and Illinois in November to get to a bowl game), it at least gives us some hope by seeing the program's future now AND should make the team that much better for 2013 because Nelson will enter next season as an experienced quarterback instead of an untested one.

This decision will not come without its consequences, however. First is what it means for MarQueis Gray. While he might get some game snaps here or there behind center over the final four five games, coach Kill's comments post game certainly make it sound like Gray will be moving to wide receiver full time for the rest of the season. The former highly decorated four star prospect from Indianapolis, Gray will be remembered by most Gopher fans for what could have been had Tim Brewster decided to redshirt him back in 2009 and give him more time to develop at QB. This seems like a good time to point out that Brewster's decision to not redshirt Gray back then and Kill's decision to do the same with Nelson this year are entirely different. Gray, as I will point out for the umpteenth time, needed that redshirt year to develop as a passing quarterback because he had missed almost his entire high school senior season due to injury and the next season due to academics. That senior year he was able to play in just three games and only attempted 41 passes, completing 23 of them. As a high school junior he attempted just 140 passes the entire season in a run-oriented option offense. Not that I blame his high school coach for not developing him more as a passer, because Q's physical skills as a runner would have dominated their high school opponents, but with injury in high school and then another year lost to academics, Gray came in to fall camp in 2009 not having thrown even 200 passes in a game in the past three seasons, and hadn't thrown a pass in a game in over a year.

With his incredible physical gifts he should have been redshirted to try and work on his passing skills, but Brewster couldn't resist using him as a "change of pace" player during his freshman season, and never gave much of a chance to run the real offense in a game. What's made the decision even more damning is that we knew Adam Weber was returning in 2010, and as a three year starter had a serious advantage on the starting gig for the next season. Not surprisingly, Weber kept his job and Gray moved to...wide receiver? It's a wonder Gray is able to throw the ball and read defenses as well as he has considering how little experience and practice time he was given in the four years from his junior year of high school in 2007 to his junior year of college when Kill took over in 2011. More amazing, and what hasn't been talked about enough, is how Gray has taken all of this like a man with nary a complaint. As Matt over at FBT said yesterday:

Has any Gopher in recent memory been jerked around as much as Q, yet didn't complain and gave everything he had to the program regardless?

That SHOULD be Gray's legacy, but it will likely be overlooked. As it is, Q is keeping his chin up, and is looking at the switch as an opportunity to work on his game and audition for a position he hopes to play on Sundays starting next year. If anybody deserves a shot at the NFL after all he's endured, it's Gray, and his success at wideout obviously also gives Nelson and the Gopher offense a better chance at success this season too. And with all the injuries right now, the offense needs all the help it can get.

Kill's decision to take the shirt off Nelson does seem to have curious timing coming in the 6th game of the season, but again, whatever his reasoning it's looking highly unlikely it'll be a wasted year for Nelson if Kill keeps his word. Unlike Gray in 2009, Nelson will be the #1 guy the rest of the season, getting valuable practice time with the 1's, and getting to start and play on gamedays with as much as the offensive playbook as he can handle. It's invaluable on-the-job training that, as already mentioned, will hopefully make the Gopher offense that much better for 2013 and beyond as the group gets a chance to learn and develop together before we even get to next season.

The other consequence this decision will likely lead to is a serious need for quarterback recruits behind Nelson after this season. Gray will be gone, and it's almost assured current backup Max Shortell will be too. With a red shirt season still to use, I'd be shocked if Shortell doesn't transfer somewhere else for an offense that suits his style better and will give him a chance to play. This perhaps would have happened anyway as had Nelson beat out Shortell in spring ball or fall practice in 2013 then Shortell probably leaves then too, but it does put a spot light on how little depth the Gophers have at QB next season. Assuming Gray and Shortell are gone, your only other scholarship QB is fellow true freshman Mitch Leidner. While he'll now be a class behind Nelson at least going into next year, Minnesota is still very, very thin at a position that has been very prone to injury under Jerry Kill. I know Kill and Co. have hit the JUCO circuit hard to shore up their defense in their first few seasons, but you have to wonder if finding a JUCO transfer quarterback might not be a bad idea either? While he wouldn't have any D1 experience, he'd at least have some real game experience outside of high school, and give the Gophers more depth than they're looking at now.

Still, deciding to take the redshirt off Nelson midway through the season was a decision Kill felt had to make, and he's already proven he doesn't care what the fans and media think of his decisions. He's the coach, he's rebuilt programs before, and if he feels the best thing for the program is for Philip Nelson to start the final five games of 2012 instead of red shirting, then that's what's going to happen. This decision, as well as the one to cancel the series with North Carolina that cost the athletic department $800k, can't be properly judged for at least another season or two. Fans and media may not like them now (for the record I hate losing the UNC series, especially when it cost them $800k to do it), but Kill is here to build a program, and we'll see in a couple of years if these decisions lead to the program being a perennial bowl team pushing for more, or if it won't look much different than it does now. For the rest of this season at least, as long as Nelson starts those remaining games as promised, he won't get any arguments from me. Not that he cares.