MINNEAPOLIS — Philip Nelson likely could have had plenty offers from colleges across the country, but he shut down the recruiting process early by committing to stay in state and play for the University of Minnesota.
The former Mankato West star quarterback loved the approach new Gophers coach Jerry Kill brought to campus. From the day he took the job prior to last season, Kill preached patience in getting Minnesota’s football program back on track.
Nelson admired Kill’s attitude. In fact, the Gophers went from not being on Nelson’s radar to being his top choice after Kill came on board.
Nelson saw the opportunity at hand. Minnesota endured back-to-back three-win seasons in 2010 and 2011 and hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 1967. Sure, he probably could have attended a school with an established program and more recent championships.
But Nelson wanted to be a part of the solution.
“I can’t wait to get this whole thing turned around,” he said after signing with the Gophers in February.
Two games into his college career, it’s far too early to say Nelson has done anything to turn the Gophers’ program around. Minnesota is 1-1 in his first two starts — a loss at Wisconsin and a convincing home victory over Purdue last weekend. In his first win, Nelson completed 15 of 22 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns as he helped the Gophers beat a Boilermakers team that won the meeting, 45-17, last year. But the freshman did not complete a pass in the second half Saturday. In fact, he attempted only five after halftime.
Still, the production he put up in the first half against the Boilermakers was enough to help the Gophers build a comfortable lead — and to generate plenty of buzz on campus.
“After a victory, everybody’s excited about Gopher football, so that’s something that really excites a lot of us players,” Nelson said. “It’s a great couple days afterwards, but right after that, we’re already thinking about Michigan and getting ready to go.”
Nelson is Minnesota’s third quarterback this season. The Gophers began the year with senior MarQueis Gray under center. When Gray went down with an ankle injury, it was sophomore Max Shortell’s turn. Minnesota was hoping to not have to use Nelson this year and burn his redshirt, but a dinged-up Gray and a struggling Shortell left Kill with no choice.
Two weeks ago, Nelson was thrust into the starting role in a hostile environment at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. Though the Gophers lost that game to rival Wisconsin, Nelson held his own in his first career start — completing 13 of 24 passes for 149 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions.
Some questioned the timing of the decision to start Nelson. Why burn his redshirt six games into the season? Why not stick with Shortell the rest of the way and give Nelson a full year to learn in practice?
“There’s nothing like game experience. So, I just think he’s done a good job, but I think when you’re a quarterback, you’re expected to do that,” Kill said of Nelson. “That is part of the position. It’s kind of like being the head coach. You have to make tough decisions, and you have to do certain things to play that position. You have to be a leader or you’re not going to be able to play that position.”
Nelson has already proven to be a leader. Just 19 years old, Nelson has shown maturity on and off the field. He enrolled at Minnesota early in order to get extra practices with his teammates in the spring. And while still a true freshman, Nelson already has gained the respect of those teammates in the huddle.
“I help the best I can, but everything that you’ve seen is all up to Phil,” said Gray, who has transitioned to wide receiver since injuring his ankle. “I just tell him good job and keep doing what he’s doing and he’s going to be good for us. So far he’s been doing that.”
Though the move to start Nelson came later in the season, the true freshman will still finish with six regular-season starts — more than either Gray or Shortell. That number could reach seven if Minnesota makes it to a bowl game. The Gophers need just one more win in their remaining four games to make that happen.
If that win is to come Saturday against Michigan, Nelson will have his work cut out for him. Minnesota will be going up against one of the best pass defenses in the country. The Wolverines have allowed just 145.2 yards per game through the air, tops in the nation. Michigan has not allowed 200 passing yards in any of its eight games this year.
Nelson welcomes the challenge, just as he did when he committed to Minnesota.
“Michigan’s one of the best, so we’re ready to see where we’re at,” Nelson said. “We talk about how last year, there were two embarrassing games, and that was Purdue and Michigan. We made one of them right and we’re ready to make another one right this year.”