MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers head coach Jerry Kill often references his previous stomping grounds, pointing to the success he’s had along the way at stops such as Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois.
While coaching at the latter, Kill’s Huskies team thrived with a two-quarterback system. Chandler Harnish was the main passer on the team, racking up 2,530 yards and 21 touchdowns. But fellow quarterback Jordan Lynch was used a good amount in 2010, rushing 31 times for three touchdowns while throwing a handful of passes. The two of them helped Northern Illinois 11-3 in 2010, Kill’s last season there.
Now in his third year at the helm at Minnesota, Kill could see a similar situation unfold. He once again has two athletic quarterbacks in sophomore Philip Nelson and redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner. While Nelson played in eight games as a true freshman last year, he by no means has the starting quarterback job locked up. But even if he does start the 2013 season under center, it doesn’t necessarily mean Gophers fans won’t see Leidner on the field.
“I think that’s what he’s trying to build his program around,” Nelson said of Lynch and Harnish. “Those two reminded him a lot of competition. He tells us all the time how they thrived off of each other and that’s what made them great.”
The assumption by many as the Gophers opened fall camp this past weekend was that Nelson had the quarterback job secured. He started the final seven games of the year as a true freshman when fellow quarterbacks MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell went down with injuries. Nelson’s performance was up and down, though, in those seven games. Following a three-touchdown effort against Purdue in which he threw for 246 yards, Nelson surpassed 100 yards just two more times in the final five games. He threw eight interceptions in seven games during his baptism by fire in the Big Ten and a bowl game.
Leidner, meanwhile, spent all of 2012 watching from the sidelines as the Gophers opted to keep the redshirt on the Lakeville native. Like Nelson, Leidner has shown he can tuck the ball and run, something Kill had an affinity for with his previous quarterbacks.
“I do like running the football,” Leidner said. “I was able to get a lot better at that last season and during spring ball. I just continued to get faster and keep running the ball well.”
For the first time since Kill took the job in 2011, the Gophers finally have a bit of depth at several positions. This means there will be plenty of position battles this fall as Minnesota gears up for its season opener on Aug. 9 against UNLV.
That includes the quarterback positions, where Nelson and Leidner will continue to push each other.
“Nobody’s position’s guaranteed, and that’s the way Coach Kill runs his program,” Nelson said. “That’s why we are getting better and better is because nobody’s position is safe and everybody has to work for their spot. Coach Kill is going to play the best player.”
Added Leidner: “Everybody wants that No. 1 spot. I’m going to do whatever I can to get it.”
The quarterbacks spent the summer throwing to many of the wide receivers, a way for them to attempt to build chemistry before taking the field in the fall. Minnesota has many questions at wide receiver, but after the work they did together in the summer, Nelson and Leidner have confidence in their receiving corps.
At the same time, the rest of the offense seems to have faith in Nelson’s leadership abilities — regardless of whether or not he’s the starter in Week 1.
“I think he’s become a lot more of a leader,” said wide receiver Isaac Fruechte. “Last year it was kind of up in the air who was going to be the (quarterback) with injuries and everything like that. This year, Philip has really matured and kind of grown to be the leader of the team, on the offense especially, and really make sure everybody’s working hard and competing and trying to get better.”
Nelson has learned that not every play on offense has to be a home run. He can still be an effective quarterback by moving the team up and down the field with, as he said, “a 50-yard bomb.” Having gained experience as a true freshman, Nelson now feels he can manage the game better.
After a shaky first few days in fall camp, both Nelson and Leidner have work to do to establish themselves as the No. 1 quarterback. From here on out, all eyes will no doubt be on the two signal callers as the Gophers coaching staff figures out how to best use Nelson and Leidner in 2013.
“You evaluate that position every day,” Kill said. “That’s part of life. They’re like me. We get evaluated every day, and you have to have tough skin. That’s just part of that position.”