MINNEAPOLIS — Whether it’s criticism or praise, the focus of a football team seems to be centered more often than not on the quarterback. Gophers freshman Philip Nelson was no exception to that rule this season.
Nelson, the true freshman from Mankato, was thrust into the starting role in Week 7 against Wisconsin when MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell were both out with injuries. From then until the end of the regular season, Nelson was Minnesota’s starting quarterback. While he lost his first career game 38-13, he bounced back one week later to help the Gophers beat Purdue 44-28.
In that win over the Boilermakers, Nelson certainly created a buzz on campus when he threw for 246 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. But from that point on, Nelson seemed to regress.
The following week, he was 13-of-29 for 142 yards and a touchdown in a 35-13 loss at home to Michigan. In his final three games against Illinois, Nebraska and Michigan State, Nelson compiled a total of 198 yards, threw five interceptions and zero touchdowns.
While Nelson was unimpressive down the home stretch of the regular season, Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said it’s unfair to put all of the blame on Nelson.
“The biggest thing is you feel a little bit bad for Phillip because that’s 11 guys out there,” Limegrover said. “Sometimes when something goes wrong, sometimes it isn’t that kid’s fault and sometimes it is. He’s the first one to look at it and go, ‘Yeah, that wasn’t very good.’ But there are some situations that the other 10 didn’t help him out, whether it was no protection or a bad route. There were a lot of factors.”
Among those factors were an offensive line that couldn’t stay healthy and the departure of A.J. Barker, the team’s top wide receiver who suffered an ankle injury and later left the program in a very public manner, making accusations about head coach Jerry Kill in the process. Barker was Nelson’s top target in the win over Purdue, as the duo connected for five catches for 135 yards and two touchdowns — all in the first half — before Barker was sidelined with a sprained ankle.
Without Barker, Nelson struggled to find a go-to receiver in Minnesota’s final four games. No receiver had more than three catches in any game during that stretch, and none had over 45 yards receiving in a single game. And Nelson’s only touchdown pass in the final four games wasn’t even to a wide receiver — it was to tight end John Rabe.
As much as it’s been a learning curve for Nelson, his young and inexperienced receiving corps has also had to learn to play without Barker. Thankfully for Minnesota, the bowl game allows an additional 15 practices, which is ideal for young teams like the Gophers and a young quarterback like Nelson.
“They’re a benefit for every single kid that goes out there, whether it’s Philip who’s going to be playing on the 28th or (quarterback) Mitch Leidner, who we’re redshirting, or a young kid that’s been redshirted on the offensive line or at wide receiver,” Limegrover said. “The things that we’re able to do during this time, we’re able to get a lot of good work done and get some things in there. We’re able to slow it down a little bit so we can teach it better rather than having that hair on fire, got to get a game plan in.”
In just over a week, Nelson will be on the biggest stage yet of his college career as he takes the field for the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas on Dec. 28 against Texas Tech. The game will be broadcast on ESPN in prime time as the only bowl game that night.
His college debut against Wisconsin was on a big stage — in front of 80,000 fans at a hostile Camp Randall Stadium — but the bowl game will be a different animal.
Then again, Nelson’s teammates have seen the transformation the freshman quarterback made from that first game through the end of the season. The Nelson that takes the field on the 28th won’t be the same one who lined up under center in Madison.
“He was more poised in the last game (against Michigan State) than he was in the Wisconsin game,” said redshirt sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood. “You could tell (against Wisconsin) he was, ‘OK, I’ve got to go out and do everything right. I can’t take any chances. I’ve got to do this, do that.’ It worked for him that game, but he’s kind of relaxed and became a sophomore quarterback already.”
Throughout the season, Kill would often make mention of the fact that his team is young. Indeed, Minnesota has a young roster. That includes the likes of Nelson, a true freshman who started half of the Gophers’ games at the most important position.
Amid everything he had to deal with around him, be it a banged up offensive line or a lack of playmakers at wide receiver, Nelson has had to grow up quickly for a 19-year-old.
“You don’t want to make excuses, but you look out there and at one point you stop the film. Of your 11 players on offense, six of them are true freshman and you’re playing against Wisconsin or against Nebraska,” Limegrover said. “It’s a little daunting, but the best thing is they become sophomores. The best thing about our freshmen is they have an extra 15 practices before we even get to spring ball, so it’s accelerating that process. They’re going to be that much further ahead.”