This one should be pretty easy right? Upgrade. The end.
But that is kind of boring and we can take a look at why this is going to be an upgrade and look at the others behind the Big Ten's 24th best player on the depth chart. This might be the one position group on the roster that gives me the least reason for concern, both now and in the future. Here the Gophers seem to have a great player now and a plan for the future and if needed a reliable step in between.
The Now - MarQueis Gray is a senior and the prized recruit of the Tim Brewster era will be closing out his Gopher career as a second-year starter. Almost daily I dream of a world where Gray was redshirted back in 2009 (where he attempted 15 passes as a wildcat QB) and we all start drooling over the potential of the 2013 Gopher offense. But that never happened and 2009 was, in my humble opinion, wasted on a couple wildcat plays per game that did nothing to alter wins/losses or to further his development as a quarterback.
But we are set to witness what should be a big season for Gray. Halfway through 2011 things started to click for Gray and a new leader emerged for the Gopher offense. There was something different between his first six games and his final five (after missing the Michigan game due to injury). The stats show a marked improvement and two conference wins removed any doubt that this was a different player.
Those stats don't scream HEISMAN but across the board they were much better after the Michigan game. I think we'd all be happy to see a full season of 53% completions (or better). And a jump from 125 yards per game passing to 150 is a pretty significant improvement. All of these numbers still leave room for improvement in his senior season but the point is that about midway through 2011, Gray started to get comfortable under center. Now with a full offseason under his belt and not having to learn a brand new playbook for the first time in his career, really big things are expected out of Gray in 2012.
The ceiling is about as high as he wants to go. Team wins and losses are not going to be completely under his control when you consider the fact that we have an unproven receiving corp, a young OL and question marks on defense. But he could easily finish the year earning All-Big Ten honors and being one of the most dangerous offensive weapons in the league. At the very least we should expect to see numbers similar to what he showed in the final 5 games (about 150 yards passing on 53% completions and about 100 yards rushing). Those basement level numbers aren't going to get us to a bowl game but I think we are all expecting that to be worst-case-scenario. It is hard to imagine this position being anything but an upgrade for the Gophers.
The Bridge - Max Shortell, as a TRUE freshman threw himself into a quarterback controversy last fall when he was forced onto the field, week 1 at USC. And he did really well, nearly leading the Gophers to a huge upset win over the Trojans. Again, he was a true freshman playing in his first collegiate game at USC. When Gray went down with an injury, Shortell came out going 7/13, 98 yards and a touchdown. Eventually he came back to what most would expect from a true freshman quarterback. He ended the comeback attempt at USC with an interception and when he got a chance to start at Michigan he struggled (as did the other 21 guys on the field) en route to a 0-55 thumping.
Now Shortell has had an offseason to go with one year of learning how to compete at a Big Ten level. He is big, he has a strong arm and I think we all believe him to be a reliable option if Gray were to go down. I think the experience he earned last season will pay off big dividends for him this year when he gets his opportunities. Watching a couple practices and a scrimmage it is clear that he is much more decisive and confident on the field. I think this is another clear-cut improvement over last year's back-up QB (who just so happened to be the same kid, who was a true freshman).
The Future - Philip Nelson was one of the "big gets" in the 2012 recruiting class. Many believe he is the Gopher quarterback of the future. He will almost certainly redshirt this fall and many think he may beat out Shortell to start next fall as a redshirt freshman. Nelson has a nice arm and is quite mobile. This may be Kill's Gopher version of Chandler Harnish. Nelson did benefit from arriving on campus early enough to participate in spring practice, but he will redshirt. This means he will enter fall of 2013 having participated in two years of spring practice, one full season on the sidelines and will enter camp presumably fighting for the starting QB job.
The Rest - Mitch Leidner is also a true freshman who has been impressive in practices but may eventually be moved to another position so he can contribute. He is a lock to redshirt. Dexter Foreman is more in the athletic mold but has not been on the 105 roster in fall practice so not much is expected of him at this point.
This position is basically exactly the same as last year with a year of improvment and experience under their belts. Gray will be better and Shortell should be better prepared. Nelson gives Gopher fans a reason for hope down the road. This should be a better year than it was last year under center.