MINNEAPOLIS — University of Minnesota football coach Jerry Kill is playing his cards close to his chest in regard to the Gophers’ quarterback situation for this Saturday’s game against Northwestern.
Senior MarQueis Gray is still recovering from a high ankle sprain and is not yet at 100 percent. Kill said there “is a chance” Gray plays in at least some capacity this Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. It appears almost certain, however, that sophomore Max Shortell will start under center.
For Shortell, it would be his third consecutive start in place of the injured Gray. Shortell and the 4-1 Gophers fell flat in their Big Ten opener two weeks ago in a 31-13 loss at Iowa. After a bye week last Saturday, Minnesota is eager to get back on the field and try to bounce back from that loss.
Perhaps no one is more antsy to take the field again and put the Iowa game in the past than Shortell, who was 20-for-33 for two touchdowns but also threw three interceptions.
“You want to get back in it, get right back in things,” Shortell said. “But you get a week off and think about everything you did wrong and things you could have done better. But it was a good chance to relax and focus.”
The Iowa loss was the second time Shortell quarterbacked the Gophers for a full Big Ten road game. Minnesota was routed 58-0 last year in Shortell’s first career start last year with Gray sidelined with an injury. Shortell then started the following game against Purdue but attempted just three passes before Gray replaced him.
There’s a chance that both quarterbacks could play Saturday, with Gray spelling Shortell for a series or two. Kill said Gray could possibly be on the field for 15-20 plays if he’s healthy enough.
Despite the uncertainty of his role for the Gophers’ upcoming game, though, Shortell is preparing as if the offense will be his to lead.
“It’s tough to say, ‘Is MarQueis going to be healthy or not?’ But being the backup, you still have to focus like you’re going to play every week,” Shortell said. “You have to game plan like you’re going to be the guy anyway, just in case something would happen. On that note, it’s just kind of like any other week. Even if I was to be a backup, I’ve got to focus and be ready to play.”
Shortell entered the Gophers’ game last month against Western Michigan after Gray went down. The sophomore went 10-for-17 for 188 yards and three touchdowns as Minnesota hung on for a 28-23 win. One week later, Shortell got his first start of the year and led the Gophers to a 17-10 win over Syracuse.
Despite his first loss of the season at Iowa, Shortell is still confident. Kill cited the fact that Shortell was a part of a Bishop Miege (Kan.) High School team that won the state title in 2009, Shortell’s junior year. He was successful at that level, and he’s found success at times on the Division I level as well.
“Max won state championships and comes from a high-powered program, so I think he’s got a lot of confidence,” Kill said. “Winning, when you know how to win, there’s something to be said for that. You understand if you played that position in high school and you were winning, you’ve had some critics along the way. … It’s kind of like being a head coach, really. As a head coach, you’re going to take some hits. That’s part of it. As a quarterback, you’re going to take some hits. It’s how you respond.”
Shortell didn’t really get a chance to respond after that loss at Michigan last year. But Saturday’s game will give the 6-foot-6, 237-pound sophomore an opportunity to bounce back from the Iowa loss.
“This year is completely different, my (comfort) level, especially in this offense,” Shortell said. “… College football is the time of my life. Getting a chance to play, it’s an honor to play here at the University of Minnesota.”
For a quarterback who’s used to winning, perhaps the Iowa loss was more beneficial than a win as far as Shortell’s learning curve. He was among many other Gophers players who couldn’t wait to hit the film room after getting back from Iowa City.
Even a week and a half later, Shortell recalled several throws he missed and lamented on opportunities he and the offense squandered. The sophomore expects more of himself, and Minnesota knows he can do the job. At the same time, he’s still young. Taking his lumps like he did at Iowa is part of the process.
“There’s nothing like experience. The more Max plays, the better he’ll get. The more MarQueis plays, the better he gets,” Kill said. “I think sometimes you just have to learn by experience because even in the National Football League, you look at veterans who’ve been playing for a long time. Even Peyton Manning throws a few interceptions.
“It’s a difficult position. Sometimes you have to learn that position making some mistakes and losing some games, which you don’t want to do. It’s a tough position to play.”