Enough about basketball, right? Spring football is here! New head coach P.J. Fleck’s inaugural Golden Gopher squad opens up spring practice tomorrow. Leading up to the spring game at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday, April 15, we’ll be breaking down each position group so you’ll know what to watch for this spring.
Today, we’re starting with the position that will be scrutinized even after a starter has been named at the end of fall camp: Quarterback.
Key Departure(s): Mitch Leidner
Key Returner(s): Conor Rhoda, Demry Croft, and Seth Green
New Arrival(s): Neil McLaurin and Tanner Morgan
Whether you liked him or not, Mitch Leidner leaves a huge hole at the quarterback position. The Lakeville native was a three-year starter for the Gophers, starting 41 games for Minnesota over four seasons and amassing a 24-17 record as a starter. In his career, he rushed 446 times for 1,495 yards and 33 touchdowns, while passing for 7,287 yards and 36 touchdowns. He ranks second all-time in school history in total offense with 8,882 total yards, and was just the second Gopher player to rush and pass for 30 touchdowns.
What to expect from Kirk Ciarrocca
Farewell, Jay Johnson. We hardly knew ye. Enter new head coach P.J. Fleck and offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kirk Ciarrrocca. The pair engineered an offensive turnaround at Western Michigan that saw the Broncos rank 120th in total offense, 120th in rushing offense, and 116th in passing offense according to S&P+ in 2013, before being ranked 22nd in total offense, 36th in rushing offense, and 5th in passing offense in 2016. So what can we expect them to bring to Minnesota?
Fleck and Ciarrocca favor 3- and 5-step drops, so their quarterback will need to be able to make quick and accurate reads. The Broncos’ offensive system was predicated on spreading the defense out and getting the football to playmakers in space, and I don’t see that changing much at Minnesota. That also means getting the ball out quickly. The Gophers’ quarterback will be expected to read the defense and make calls at the line of scrimmage, as Ciarrocca leaned heavily on the run-pass option with Zach Terrell at Western Michigan. This is sort of a no-brainer, but taking care of the ball and limiting turnovers is a must, as well.
Let’s look at Zach Terrell. Terrell was a four-year starter under center for Fleck and Ciarrocca at Western Michigan. He made his first start for the Broncos as a freshman on October 12, 2013, and never looked back. He struggled that first season, completing 53 percent of his passes for 1,602 passing yards, 8 touchdowns, and 8 interceptions. But over his final three seasons at Western Michigan, Terrell completed 68 percent of his passes and threw for 10,498 yards, 88 touchdowns, and 23 interceptions. His yards per pass attempt over that same stretch? 9.2.
At 6’2’’ and a little over 200 lbs., Terrell is undersized for the NFL, and his pro prospects are dubious at best. He didn’t have a single Power 5 offer coming out of high school. Yet he thrived in Ciarrocca’s offensive system at Western Michigan. He is efficient at distributing the ball, essentially functioning as a field general who directs the offense. Terrell doesn’t have great arm strength, but his accuracy on short and intermediate throws allows his receivers to make plays in space. More than anything, he has a high football I.Q. and makes smart decisions before and after the snap. Fleck challenged him to be a vocal leader as a freshman, and Terrell answered the call. He is also a servant leader off the field with a considerable amount of charity work. Pro scouts express concerns about his physical limitations, but none question his intangibles.
Who will replace Mitch Leidner?
Senior former walk-on Conor Rhoda is the lone upperclassman at the position. Rhoda was set to transfer after last season, but was convinced to return for his senior season by Fleck. The lone start of his Gopher career came against Maryland last season. He was 7-of-15 for 82 yards and one touchdown in a road win over the Terrapins. His career numbers in four games: 8-of-17, 88 yards, one touchdown, zero interceptions.
Behind Rhoda, the Gophers have almost complete unknowns in redshirt sophomore Demry Croft and redshirt freshman Seth Green. Croft saw limited action in 2015 before redshirting last season. In three games in 2015, Croft was 7-of-17 with 34 passing yards, no touchdowns, and no interceptions. Green hasn’t seen the field as a Gopher.
The newcomers here are Tanner Morgan and Neil McLaurin.
Morgan is a quick and accurate passer with a lot of upside. Whereas the previous staff seemed to favor athletic prospects that needed to develop as a quarterback, he is much more of a refined passer than what Gopher fans have been accustomed to. Like the aforementioned Terrell, Morgan is a bit undersized at 6’2’’ and 175 lbs (according to his official Gopher bio). Two inches taller and he might’ve been more heavily recruited. But he did pull in Power 5 offers from Louisville and Wake Forest. As a high school senior, Morgan threw for 2,747 passing yards and 27 touchdowns. As a freshman early enrollee, he’ll have a shot in the quarterback competition.
McLaurin is the clear underdog in this fight. Recruited by the previous staff, McLaurin signed his letter of intent before Tracy Claeys was fired in January, so Fleck didn’t have a choice in the matter. For a JUCO quarterback, McLaurin didn’t exactly scorch the earth at Southwest Mississippi Community College. Last season, he was 85-for-161 through the air with 964 passing yards, 8 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. On the ground, he rushed for 440 yards and 6 touchdowns on 80 carries. McLaurin is, more than anything, an explosive runner with speed and athleticism. He has a good arm, but a bad habit of throwing late or behind his receivers.
As the upperclassman in the group, I’d give a slight edge in the competition to Rhoda, although I wouldn’t be surprised if Morgan is starting at some point next season. I’m not sold on either Croft or Green, simply because the previous staff’s quarterback evaluations were questionable at best and we haven’t seen enough of either of them to make a judgment for ourselves. But I think the competition is wide open and I look forward to seeing it open up this spring.
Next up: Running Backs.