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Minnesota Football: The ugly end of the Philip Nelson era

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The quarterback of a future that never came to pass

Minnesota v Michigan State Photo by Mark A. Cunningham/Getty Images

No position group has bedeviled the Minnesota Golden Gophers over the last decade quite like the signal callers under center. This fall, the team’s fate would seems to rest in the inexperienced hands of redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan. Should he turn out to be competent, it will have been a long and strange road, riddled with the unfulfilled potential of countless Gopher quarterbacks.

Today we turn the spotlight to: Philip Nelson.

As a Prospect

247 Sports Composite Rating: .8624
Scholarship Offers: None

As a quarterback at Mankato West High School, Nelson finished his high school career 490-of-801 for 7,561 career passing yards with 94 touchdown passes. As a senior, he led the team to an 11-1 record and a trip to the state semifinals, passing for 2,784 yards and 35 touchdowns and rushing for 1,243 yards and 20 touchdowns. He also set state records for single-season total touchdowns (55) and career touchdowns (135).

Nelson received his first scholarship offer from then Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill in December 2010 and committed to the Gophers two months later.

As a highly-touted in-state quarterback — and the recipient of the Minnesota Mr. Football award as a senior — Nelson was tabbed the Gophers’ quarterback of the future.

As a Gopher

The plan was for Nelson to redshirt as a freshman, but injuries to MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell forced the coaching staff to burn his redshirt. Six games into the season, Nelson was named the starting quarterback against Wisconsin, a game that also represented the first game action of his college career. The Gophers lost, but Nelson was a solid 13-of-24 for 149 passing yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He also rushed for 67 yards on 16 attempts.

He started the final seven games of the season, during which the Gophers went 2-5. The highlight for both Nelson and the Gophers over that stretch was undoubtedly a 44-28 victory over Purdue. He threw for 246 passing yards and three touchdowns. In the five games after that, Nelson would throw more interceptions (6) than touchdowns (3). But even through his struggles as a true freshman, the starting spot seemed to be Nelson’s to lose.

Nelson was the starter to open the season as a sophomore and led the Gophers to a 3-0 record before being sidelined with a bad hamstring. Mitch Leidner started in his place against San Jose State, helping Minnesota emerge from their non-conference slate unscathed. Nelson returned against Iowa the following week, but the Hawkeyes exposed the Gophers’ offensive shortcomings and limited them to a single touchdown, forcing two interceptions.

Nelson sat out again the following week against Michigan, another loss and a game in which the Gophers were without Jerry Kill, who suffered a seizure prior to the game that would sideline him the rest of the season. Even though Leidner was tabbed as the starter against Northwestern, Nelson was inserted after three failed possessions to open the game and immediately led a scoring drive, helping the Gophers to a 20-17 victory over the Wildcats.

Thus began the best four-game stretch of Nelson’s career at Minnesota.

The Gophers’ next game offered Nelson the signature game of his tenure, as Minnesota upset No. 24-ranked Nebraska behind one passing touchdown and two rushing touchdowns from their quarterback. It ended a sixteen-game losing streak to the Cornhuskers and represented the program’s first win over Nebraska since 1960.

Nelson followed that up with four touchdown passes on the road against Indiana, including the game-winner to Maxx Williams. He contributed one passing touchdown and one rushing touchdown against Penn State, helping the Gophers reclaim the coveted Governor’s Victory Bell. But then Nelson and the offense suffocated in the final two games of the regular season, scoring a combined 10 points against Wisconsin and Michigan State.

The Texas Bowl against Syracuse was a disaster for Nelson. He was pulled in favor of Mitch Leidner after the first two offensive possessions of the game, during which he was 2-of-7 for 18 passing yards. Some of his errant throws were not even close to his intended target. Leidner finished the rest of the game, completing 50 percent of his passes but throwing two touchdowns. The Gophers appeared primed for a quarterback battle in the offseason.

Until Nelson decided to transfer in January. The popular (but, as far as I know, unconfirmed) rumor was that Nelson asked Kill for assurances that he would be the starting quarterback next season and Kill balked, leading Nelson to take his talents elsewhere.

His career statistics from two seasons at Minnesota:

2012

  • 75-for-152 (49.3%), 873 passing yards, 8 TD, 8 INT
  • 69 rushing attempts, 184 yards

2013

  • 94-for-186 (50.5%), 1,306 passing yards, 9 TD, 6 INT
  • 93 rushing attempts, 364 yards, 6 TD

Where is he now?

Nelson transferred to Rutgers, where he was to redshirt in the fall and then compete for the starting quarterback position with two years of eligibility left.

That didn’t happen.

Nelson’s tenure with the Scarlet Knights was cut short when he was kicked off the team that same spring after being arrested and charged with two counts of assault. The arrest and charges stemmed from a fight outside a bar in Minnesota, during which he allegedly kicked Isaac Kolstad, a former Minnesota State Mankato football player, in the head. The altercation left Kolstad with a fractured skull and permanent brain damage.

Ten months after the incident, Nelson pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and was sentenced to a $300 fine and 100 hours of community service.

He was able to continue his college education and football career at East Carolina, where joined the team as a walk-on in 2015. He was named the Pirates’ starting quarterback the following season, when he led them to a 3-9 record. In his lone season as starter, Nelson was 237-for-349 for 2,621 passing yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also rushed for 349 yards on 237 attempts with 16 touchdowns.

Nelson signed with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the Canadian Football League last October, but was released from the team a month later.

Final Word

Talk about a roller coaster.

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of Nelson’s short career at Minnesota. Would it have helped his development if he had been able to redshirt as a freshman? Then again, with that coaching staff’s track record at quarterback, would it really have made much of a difference?

The talent was there, but his potential was unfulfilled. I’ll always remember his performances against Nebraska and Indiana, but I’ll also never be able to forget the Texas Bowl where I too often found myself trying to figure out to whom he was throwing the ball.

Obviously there are those who will question his character, based on the circumstances of his departure from Minnesota and subsequent arrest, but it’s impossible to know for sure what kind of person he was or is when judging from a distance.

On the field, his Gopher career was a series of peaks and valleys. It’s unfortunate he couldn’t (or wouldn’t) climb his way up from the valley that led him out of Minnesota.

Next: Chris Streveler.