MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers football team didn’t list it on this week’s depth chart, but all signs point to sophomore Max Shortell taking the snaps as Minnesota’s starting quarterback on Saturday against Syracuse.
Shortell entered last weekend’s game against Western Michigan when starting quarterback MarQueis Gray went down with a high ankle sprain. No timetable has been set for Gray’s return, but the injury normally takes at least a few weeks of recovery. Even with his track record as a quick healer, it’s doubtful that Gray will take snaps Saturday against the Orange.
That means Shortell will likely get his second career start for the Gophers, who improved to 3-0 after last Saturday’s win. Shortell’s only other start came last year as a true freshman, when he started in place of the injured Gray in a road game against Michigan. Shortell and the Gophers struggled mightily in that game as they were routed 58-0 by the then-No. 19 Wolverines at the Big House in Ann Arbor. Shortell was just 11-of-22 for 104 yards and was sacked three times.
“It just made me realize that just because I don’t have a good game, we have to bounce right back,” Shortell said. “Our offense, we didn’t have the best game. As you can see this year, we’re much further along.”
As improved as Minnesota’s offense is from a year ago, Shortell is also a much different quarterback than he was during that against Michigan start last Oct. 1. He’s stronger, quicker and now has a year of experience under his belt. Shortell’s Gophers teammates have full confidence in his ability to lead them this Saturday, and Shortell certainly has confidence in himself.
“He’s a very confident individual. Anyone who sees him walking on the street is going to know that,” said tight end Drew Goodger, who caught his first career touchdown pass from Shortell last Saturday. “He’s got a little swagger to him . . . He came in (Saturday) and was very confident, and that’s what you need as a quarterback.”
After relieving Gray against Western Michigan, Shortell finished 10-for-17 for 188 yards and three touchdowns — two to wide receiver A.J. Barker and one to Goodger, who grew up with Shortell in Shawnee Mission, Kan., but attended a rival high school.
Back in Kansas, Goodger would read news clippings about Shortell’s prowess as the quarterback at Bishop Miege High School. Now that the two are finally teammates, Goodger has seen what Shortell can do at the Division I level.
“He’s just continued to get better as a quarterback,” Goodger said.
The 6-foot-6, 237-pound Shortell is preparing as if he will indeed be the starter. Gophers head coach Jerry Kill said true freshman Philip Nelson will be the team’s backup. Minnesota would prefer not to use Nelson, however, as the Gophers still hope to redshirt the former Mankato West standout.
Kill added after Tuesday’s practice that Gray was “night and day” where he was Monday in regards to his ankle. Gray was not wearing a walking boot after practice Tuesday, a good sign for both he and the Gophers. But all indications are that Gray won’t see the field for at least a few games.
Western Michigan likely didn’t game plan for Shortell, who had his way with the Broncos defense early on as he resurrected a sluggish Gophers offense late in the first half. That’s the way it was in last year’s season opener, when Shortell came in for the injured Gray against USC and nearly helped Minnesota come from behind to beat the Trojans on the road.
“Max came in as a true freshman pretty poised. He came in against USC and had a great drive his first collegiate action,” said wide receiver Derrick Engel. “Max is a mature guy and he knows how to handle the situations well. We feel like he’s a great quarterback to be in the pocket for us.”
On Saturday, Shortell be facing a Syracuse defense that is expecting him to line up under center. They’ve planned all week for his style of quarterbacking, which is much more pass-oriented than the running mindset of Gray.
“I think you always play to somebody’s strengths and weakness,” Kill said. “I think every quarterback has his strengths and weaknesses, even the best ones do, and we’ll play to his strengths a little bit, but we don’t have to start something all over again.”
Regardless of whether it’s Gray or Shortell under center, the Gophers are comfortable with either signal caller leading the huddle. Some have even said Nelson would be ready to step in if needed — although Minnesota hopes it doesn’t come to that.
For now, it will be Shortell leading the Gophers offense as Minnesota looks to improve to 4-0. The sophomore showed last Saturday that he’s more than capable.
“The (comfort) level for me, it’s at a different level — a completely different level — as it was last year,” Shortell said. “I’m so comfortable with my O-line and my receivers and my running back that I can trust in them in any situation.”