MINNEAPOLIS — With a much-ado-about-little battle behind him, Philip Nelson can, for the first time, fully focus on what he was brought here to do.
Command a huddle. Read defenses. Call audibles. Run the zone read. Find receiving windows. Lead touchdown marches. Win football games.
Not be faced with incessant questions about Minnesota’s No. 1 quarterback spot, which was technically up for grabs but in reality was his to lose coming into fall practices.
“We’re just ready to go out there and just play,” the sophomore said in typical team-first fashion. “We don’t want to be thinking too much. We just want to get out there and make some plays.”
Coach Jerry Kill confirmed Tuesday what most around the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex considered a given: Nelson is “certainly our starter,” beating out Mitch Leidner for a job Nelson assumed halfway through last season. A day later, Nelson emerged from a grueling, two-hour outdoor practice in the August heat with zero doubt about where he’ll be when the Gophers run their first offensive play against UNLV next Thursday.
Unless the always-coy Kill has some sort of trick up his sleeve.
The head coach and his staff made it clear coming into the offseason that quarterback, like every position in Kill’s third year at the helm, would feature an open competition. But it’s hard to go against experience, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said, and Nelson garnered plenty of it in tossing his redshirt aside a year ago.
“It was a tough decision to get him in there last year, but once you did, now you look at it and say OK, for the future, that kid, when we go over to the stadium on Aug. 29, it isn’t gonna be an ‘oh my goodness’ moment,” Limegrover said. “He’s been through that. He’s been at Nebraska, he’s been at Wisconsin, he’s played Michigan State.”
Not that Nelson’s introduction to major college football went particularly well. Third in a line of succession that included MarQueis Gray (graduated) and Max Shortell (transferred to Jacksonville State) last year, Nelson completed 75 of 152 passes (49.3 percent) for 873 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. Minnesota won just two of his seven starts, which included a bowl game loss to Texas Tech.
But he’s had an entire winter, spring and summer to prepare for his role this time around, as opposed to a week before his debut at Wisconsin. After Minnesota’s first fall scrimmage Aug. 10, Nelson said his comfort level is “night and day” from where it was when he completed 13 of 24 passes and threw two touchdown passes and two interceptions in a 38-13 loss to the Badgers.
It’s inflated even more the past two weeks, receiver Isaac Fruechte said.
“He’s just a lot more confident, and he has a bigger leadership role now,” said Fruechte, one of Nelson’s favorite receiving targets this fall. “You can just tell his demeanor in the huddle is so much better than last year. He looks a lot more comfortable, which automatically affects his game. He looks very good throwing the ball, and running, too.”
Coaches continue to praise Leidner and No. 3 quarterback Chris Streveler. Leidner, a redshirt freshman and a strong open-field runner, is likely to see snaps next Thursday, though Limegrover declined to call that a guarantee.
With no uncertainty surrounding who will start under center, the Gophers began game planning Tuesday for the Runnin’ Rebels and first-year defensive coordinator Tim Hauck, the younger brother of coach Bobby Hauck. If the situation calls for it, Minnesota could roll out a two-quarterback scheme similar to its plan in last year’s Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas with Nelson and Gray.
And while it’s Nelson that gets the first-string nod, his teammates should be ready for anything, Kill said.
“They’re gonna respond to whoever we put in there,” Kill said. “I think that’s the way we coach them.”
Receiving corps in flux: Neither Fruechte nor Limegrover seemed overly concerned about the recent run of casualties that have struck the wide receiver unit.
“We feel good about what we’ve got going on,” Fruechte said.
Andre McDonald violated a team rule and was booted from the rest of fall practice, and returning receivers Derrick Engel (groin) and Victor Keise III (hand) were limited to no-contact drills Wednesday.
That would appear to indicate there’s a good chance Engel, who caught 18 passes for 375 yards and a touchdown last year, will play Thursday.
Kill wasn’t as certain when asked if Keise would be available. “That’s a question I can’t answer. (The trainers) haven’t said he can or will not or anything like that. He’s seeing a specialist, and I think they’re gonna let it settle down a little bit and they’ll go from there.”
McDonald won’t be allowed to practice for at least the rest of fall camp and was removed from the 105-man roster due to an unspecified violation of team rules. The team also lost Devin Crawford-Tufts, who quit football to focus on track and field.
Yet Limegrover feels comfortable with Fruechte (19 catches, 256 yards last season), converted running back K.J. Maye, redshirt freshman Jamel Harbison, Engel and a few other up-and-comers eight days before the 2013 campaign begins.
“I think we’re gonna be healthy and we’re gonna have a pretty good group,” said Limegrover, whose offense ranked 105th nationally and ninth in the Big Ten last year. “Those guys are really starting to feel it and are starting to get that rapport with Philip.”
In order to establish further depth, the Gophers have been using freshman Donovahn Jones primarily at wideout the past few practices. He was recruited as an athlete and began the fall as a quarterback — the position he played predominantly at Dutchtown High School in Stockbridge, Ga.
“We recruited him that way from the very start,” Kill said,”so there’s no surprises to him or anything like that or his family or that nature. Again, he’s still learning in both positions, and there’s a learning curve that takes place for any freshman.”
Freshman receiver Drew Wolitarsky (hamstring) returned to practice Tuesday and was able to participate on a less limited basis Wednesday, Kill said.
Jones’ return: Kill said he has “zero” concerns about having Marcus Jones return punts or kicks, even though he’s in line for a lot of time at cornerback after switching from receiver.
“He definitely will be a guy that will be involved in our return game,” Kill said. Last season as a sophomore, Jones returned three punts for 47 yards.
Morning, commissioner: Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany will be on campus to watch Minnesota’s practice Thursday morning.
Delany is celebrating his 25th anniversary as commissioner by visiting all 12 conference schools this preseason.