This is the first in a series of 11 preview leading up to the Minnesota football team’s Aug. 1 start of practice.
TODAY’S POSITION: QUARTERBACKS
Rating (1-to-10 scale): 6
Projected starter: Philip Nelson (sophomore)
Key backups: Mitch Leidner (redshirt freshman), Chris Streveler (freshman)
The breakdown: The quarterback position was one of instability for Minnesota last year, as the Gophers used three different starters throughout the season. It began with senior MarQueis Gray, who went down with an ankle injury and gave way to sophomore Max Shortell. Midway through the season, the Gophers opted to roll with true freshman Philip Nelson. He made his college debut in a loss at Wisconsin and started the rest of the year for Minnesota.
The Gophers finished ninth in the Big Ten in passing offense in 2012, averaging just 169.5 yards per game through the air. In his seven starts — including the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas — Nelson was inconsistent. His best game came against Purdue when he threw for 246 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions. But in the final three regular-season games, Nelson failed to surpass 80 passing yards, throwing for 78, 59 and 61 yards, respectively, against Illinois, Nebraska and Michigan State.
Nelson did bounce back in Minnesota’s bowl game by going 7-for-16 for 138 yards — including a 42-yarder — and two touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough as the Gophers fell late to Texas Tech. Still, it was perhaps a sign that Nelson started to finally figure things out at the end of the year.
It remains to be seen who Nelson’s top targets will be in 2013. He seemed to develop chemistry with Isaac Fruechte and Derrick Engel late in the season, especially after leading receiver A.J. Barker quit the team. Nelson had half of last season plus this spring to get on the same page as his receivers.
Much hype was placed on Nelson a year ago, as he was arguably one of the best — if not the best — recruits to come out of the state of Minnesota. As a standout at Mankato West High School, Nelson earned the Gatorade Minnesota Player of the Year award, among many other accolades. When he chose to stay in-state and play for the Gophers, fans across Minnesota rejoiced.
Those same fans got to see Nelson in maroon and gold last year, and with mixed results. The growing pains were not unexpected for a true freshman was thrust into the role midseason. He has a big arm and can tuck the ball and run, but his accuracy needs to get better. He was just a 49.3 percent passer, the lowest of the three quarterbacks Minnesota used last year. If Nelson had enough games to qualify, that completion percentage would rank last among Big Ten quarterbacks. He’ll continue to grow, and he’ll get a few games against non-conference opponents to sharpen his game before Big Ten play starts in 2013.
Best position battle: The starting job is Nelson’s to lose, but he’ll likely be pushed by the two main backups in Mitch Leidner and Chris Streveler. The question is which of those two will be Nelson’s main backup. Leidner may have the upper hand as he spent a year practicing with the Gophers as a redshirt freshman last year. The Lakeville native has the size — 6-foot-4, 233 pounds — to play quarterback in the Big Ten. Streveler got a jump on the rest of the freshmen as he was on campus this past spring and took part in spring practices. The 6-foot-2, 209-pound Illinois native is a dual-threat quarterback, like Nelson, and impressed the coaches during spring ball.
As the Gophers showed last year, they’re not afraid to mix up the quarterback rotation if something isn’t working. If Nelson struggles at any point, don’t be surprised if either Leidner or Streveler gets some reps. Still, with only one quarterback on the roster that has any college reps, the Gophers are certainly inexperienced across the board at quarterback.
Best of the Big Ten: 1. Braxton Miller (Ohio State) 2. Taylor Martinez (Nebraska) 3. Devin Gardner (Michigan)
As a sophomore last year, Miller was the fourth-leading rusher in the Big Ten — as a quarterback. The Ohio State junior is arguably the most athletic signal caller in the conference, but he also showed last year that he can use his arm as a weapon, along with his feet. He was fourth in pass efficiency (140.5) and second in total offense (275.8 yards per game). With a year under his belt as the starter, he should only get better this year — and that’s scary.
Despite his funky delivery on his throws, Martinez averaged over 200 yards passing last year as a junior. Like Miller, he’ll be a year better now that he’s a year older as a senior. He, too, can take off and run — he was 10th in the Big Ten in rushing yards per game. And Gardner saw time as the starter when Wolverines senior Denard Robinson went down with an injury. Gardner threw for a pair of touchdowns and ran for another in a win against the Gophers last year.
Coach Jerry Kill says: “When you go in as a quarterback, he finished the season. He played in the bowl game, did some great things in the bowl game. Philip’s going to go and we run the first group, he’ll be out there with the first group, but he’s going to have to prove it on an every day basis, just like every other player we have on the team.
“And we got two young guys I’m sure that are hungry and wanting to show what they can do, and we’re excited about that, and we’ll see how all that works out. But it’s just like anything. You’re going to have a guy that starts and somebody’s gotta take the job. And that competition is good.”