MINNEAPOLIS — Philip Nelson got his shot as the University of Minnesota quarterback last season, burning a redshirt year and getting a shot to replace Marqueis Gray as his freshman season progressed.
Last year’s experience has put Nelson in the lead to replace Gray on a full-time basis now as Minnesota begins spring practice this week. Head coach Jerry Kill confirmed Nelson would work with the first-team offense when practice begins Tuesday, but said it will be up to Nelson to prove he deserves to keep the position.
“When you go in as a quarterback, he finished the season,” Kill said Monday. “He played in the bowl game, did some great things in the bowl game. Philip’s going to go when 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 got to take the job, and that competition is good.”
Nelson finished last season with a 49.3 completion percent, throwing eight touchdowns and eight interceptions, averaging 124.7 passing yards per game with a 104.43 quarterback efficiency rating. Gray was a senior and is preparing for the NFL draft. Sophomore Max Shortell announced his intention to transfer after the season ended. That leaves Nelson as the lead candidate, and only experienced returner.
Sophomore Logan Connors, redshirt sophomore Dexter Foreman, redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner and freshman Chris Streveler, who will participate in spring practice, are listed on the team’s spring roster.
“I think not only Philip, but you know, all of them have done a great job of doing things on their own and getting their team out there,” Kill said. “Not ours, getting their team out there, getting their receivers out there, getting their tailbacks out there, making sure they get all the things that when we start spring ball we don’t have to go way back. We can build off where we left. And that’s what our goal is.”
Nelson was 7 of 16 passing for 138 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in Minnesota’s 34-31 bowl loss to Texas Tech and his play slipped after a promising first two games, including a win against Purdue in his second start, when he went 15 of 22 for 246 yards passing and three touchdowns.
But Kill touted Streveler’s athleticism Monday and Leidner’s progress in the offseason workout program while saying Monday Nelson will have to earn the right to continue as the starter.
“It’s like anything,” Kill said. “One of the things, as I told our coaches, we’re holding everybody accountable. We’re going to hold our players accountable. We’re going to hold our coaches accountable. And when we come in, it’s going to be hard for me to meet with everybody that wants to meet with me, and we’re going to take every film and we’re going to grade it just like it’s game day. We got 15 practices. We actually got, in our opinion, 15 game days, and we’re going to grade them all 15 times. That way when a kid comes into my office at the end of spring, this is where you’re at. You got to prove it. That’s the deal of being accountable and developing a consistent football team.”
Along with giving each quarterback his shot, Kill wants to improve the timing and cohesiveness between the quarterbacks and receivers.
“Repetition is what those kids need,” Kill said of the quarterbacks. “They need repetition at throwing the same balls, the same routes, getting used to the receivers. We played three centers and three quarterbacks last year and still went to a bowl game. I don’t know if there’s very many people in the country can ever say that. And so the continuity between the quarterbacks and receivers, and to credit those kids, they came back after the bowl game and they’ve been practicing on their own, so when they line up and the quarterback comes up and you got to corner off, that quarterback can look out there and throw it. But you have to have chemistry to do that. So I don’t think we ever developed a whole lot of chemistry because of the injury situations we’ve had at quarterback.”
Kill mentioned Devin Crawford-Tufts, Isaac Fruechte, K.J. Maye (who has moved to receiver), Logan Hutton, Ben Holcomb, Devon Wright and Derrick Engel as the receivers that will be working with Nelson and the other quarterbacks.
“Hopefully that benefits everybody with repetition and timing and throwing and catching the ball,” Kill said. “We need some guys to grow up and be play makers, you know, and I think that you look at the receiving core, and those kids have worked hard, and we got to keep them healthy.”
Olson out for spring practices: Kill mentioned a few players with injury concerns as the spring begins. Kill said senior offensive lineman Ed Olson, who started all nine games he played in last season, won’t participate in spring practice as he recovers from ankle surgery. Senior offensive lineman Zach Mottla, who suffered a broken leg last year against Illinois is also out. He started three games last season at center.
Kill said senior defensive lineman Roland Johnson (knee) and sophomore linebacker Peter Westerhaus also won’t practice in the spring. Marcus Jones, who is moving from receiver to cornerback and receiver Jamel Harbison are both coming off knee injuries and will eventually return to practice this spring, but will wear green jerseys and be limited in contact.
Making a switch: Kill identified a few players that will be switching positions this year, including Jones’ move to cornerback. Derrick Wells will play cornerback and safety, Kill said. Cedric Dicke will move from safety to linebacker.
Devon Wright is moving from running back to wide receiver.
“That’s a 4.4 speed person that we’ve had at running back, but he’s got a little height to him,” Kill said. “And we feel like his skill level, we worked him during bowl camp as receiver in some of those things, and he did a pretty good job, so we’re going to start him out at receiver to use some of that skill that he has.”