Let’s kick off our Upgrade/Downgrade series of previews with the most important position on the field. Minnesota, for better or worse, is replacing a guy who started 41 games over four seasons as a Gopher. Typically when you are replacing a guy who had that kind of experience and was the leader of your offense for that many games, it is likely to be a downgrade this coming season, right? Let’s see.
Starter: Mitch Leidner
Depth: Conor Rhoda, Demry Croft (redshirted)
To say that this position was a polarizing topic among Gopher fans is the understatement of the year. Leidner was the unquestioned starter coming into his senior season. He was clearly the leader on the field, directing a Gopher offense that actually increased it’s point production by a just barely under a touchdown per game over 2015.
Leidner actually started the first third of the year playing quite well. But it was around the start of the Big Ten season when his decision making took a turn, his accuracy dipped and he just played poorly at times. Some contend that he may have been dealing with concussion issues, causing some of the poor play. But whatever the problem, whether it was some sort of an injury or just plain ol’poor play, things got ugly in some Big Ten games culminating in the regular season finale at Wisconsin. In that last chance to win the Axe, Leidner threw 4 picks and completed just 35% of his passes as the Gopher squandered a 10-point half time lead.
Conor Rhoda, the walk-on junior, was Leidner’s primary backup and did get to start at Maryland while Leider was recovering from injury. He led the Gophers to a win in that road game, completing 50% of his passes and had a touchdown.
Demry Croft and Seth Green were both on the roster, but were redshirting.
Starter: Demry Croft
Depth: Conor Rhoda, Tanner Morgan, Seth Green
This year the new Gopher coaching staff have two quarterbacks vying for the starting job. Both quarterbacks have limited playing time under their belt, but both have been participating at the collegiate level for long enough that they are not completely foreign to the speed of the game and understanding what is required to lead a Big Ten offense. But through Spring practices and Summer workouts, nobody has taken the reigns just yet and the Gophers have a full-blown position battle at quarterback.
The quarterback question is one I'm sure you all have on your minds, I have it on my mind, I'll be honest with you, every single day, every single night. What I'm looking for is somebody to take ownership of our football team.
Demry Croft is a kid who wows you in practice. He is big, he is athletic and the passes that come out of his hand catch your eye. His throws are “different” than the ones you see from the other passers on the roster. This was evident when he came to campus as a true freshman. He has had 2 years to learn the ropes and my money is on him to win the starting job this Fall. What we do not know about Croft is how well can he lead the Gopher offense, can he read a Big Ten defense and how good is he going to be at minimizing mistakes. I do believe he gives the Gophers their best chance at making big-plays both with this arm and with his feet. He represents the highest ceiling on the team. If he can show that he’ll keep mistakes to a minimum, he’ll be the guy.
The other competitor is Conor Rhoda, a former walk-on who was patient and eventually earned himself a scholarship with a chance to be the team’s starter in his senior year. He, in my mind, represents the highest floor between these two quarterbacks. He’ll make the safe throws more often, he’ll minimize mistakes and he’ll be very content handing the ball off to Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks over and over. I’m not convinced that Rhoda is they guy I want when the Gophers are down 5 and need an 80-yard TD drive in 90 seconds. His arm is OK, but I don’t expect a lot of big plays through the air out of Rhoda. He’s safer. And in Fleck’s offense that values decisiveness and accuracy, he may end up being the guy.
Behind those two is likely to be Seth Green. The four-star who originally committed to Oregon before parting ways with the Ducks and staying home in Minnesota. A talented kid, but it appears he’ll need time before he’s ready to be a Big ten quarterback.
And incoming freshman, Tanner Morgan is the last option at quarterback for Coach Fleck. What Morgan has going for him is that he’s the only one of this bunch who was recruited by Fleck. A Western Michigan commit, who was asked to come with Fleck to Minnesota. And he did. Expect a redshirt year for Morgan.
So what will the quarterback position be in 2016 compared to 2015?
Even knowing how bad Leidner was for much of the last 8 games last year, I still think we have to expect a bit of a downgrade. It’s easy to remember the bad plays (Wisconsin was just brutal), but he still managed to lead a talented offense and was quite good in the run game. His 8 TDs to 12 INTs is ugly, but he also contributed 8 touchdowns on the ground and forced defenses to honor his legs and not just focus on Rodney Smith and/or Shannon Brooks. His leadership and toughness will be the hardest thing to replace.
I have confidence in Croft and/or Rhoda, but they will make mistakes on the job. I don’t think this is a massive downgrade, but this offense will very much revolve around the running game so whoever is quarterback will hopefully have their opportunities for mistakes minimized. But they will have to make some plays and they will make some mistakes.
They're not going to be perfect. They're not going to make every throw, they're not going to make every right play but we want them to be decisive and believe in themselves, because if that quarterback believes in themself, they're going to be able to get others to believe in them, right, and to get others to believe in themselves. That's the process of leadership that we're working on right now, and we have to change some things.
Is the quarterback position in 2017 going to be an upgrade or a downgrade?
This poll is closed
Upgrade - it can’t be any worse
Downgrade - you don’t just replace 41 starts
Neutral - I can’t decide