Breaking down the Gophers QBs: Gray headed for 'breakout year?'
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Each Tuesday and Thursday until the Gophers football team opens fall camp on Aug. 1, 1500ESPN.com's Nate Sandell breaks down the "U" roster position by position, with input from conversations with coach Jerry Kill, as well as offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys.
Projected depth chart
• MarQueis Gray -- Senior, 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, Indianapolis.
• Max Shortell -- Sophomore, 6-6, 235, Shawnee Mission, Kan.
• Philip Nelson -- Freshman, 6-2, 225, Mankato, Minn.
• Mitch Leidner -- Freshman, 6-4, 230, Lakeville, Minn.
• Dexter Foreman -- RS freshman, 6-1, 245, Manvel, Texas
There won't be talk of a quarterback controversy when fall camp begins. The Gophers' offense is in Gray's hands. There is a rising level of confidence throughout the coaching staff the senior has developed far beyond the inexperienced and easily flustered (albeit supremely athletic) signal-caller he was a year ago, the Gophers' first season under a new coaching staff.
Gray, who switched back to quarterback last year after two seasons spent at receiver under former coach Tim Brewster, gave credence to his coaches' assurances with his performance during spring practice. He emerged from winter workouts with a newfound maturity and edge after several months to reflect on a junior season full of cringe-worthy and what-was-he-thinking moments.
At the root of many of Gray's flaws last season was his tendency to overthink and overcompensate as he adapted to the position. It didn't help that he was surrounded by a youthful and constantly fluctuating offensive line and receiving corps as raw and inexperienced as he was.
Gray was prone to immediately flee for safer ground as soon it appeared there were no options for him downfield. When he did unleash a pass, accuracy was a fleeting trait. Gray completed only 50.7% of his 213 passes for 1,495 yards, placing the Gophers second to last in the Big Ten in passing offense (150.3 yards per game) and passing efficiency (109.0). Gray freely admits, as he did several times during the spring, that a diminished confidence in himself intensified much of his struggles.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover has also shouldered a bulk of the blame for Gray's faults in 2011, admitting that he mistakenly tried to replicate the offense he ran in Kill's fourth and final season at Northern Illinois instead of first molding the group he had at the "U."
"We have a lot of things we really like as an offensive staff that I think, if we would have stayed at Northern Illinois with the group of kids we had there, being Year 4 and those kids having been in the program, we could of have really continued with that vision," Limegrover said in an interview with 1500ESPN.com last month.
"The problem was we tried to do Year 4-type things, because we said, 'Hey, this is going to really good.' But we were Year 1 in Minnesota. MarQueis was probably (the biggest) victim of us trying to do what we wanted to do, what our long-term vision was, rather than the short-term."
It wasn't until after their bye week in mid-October that the Gophers started to scale back on offense and simplify the playbook. Gray slowly adjusted and began slightly shedding his run-first instincts on Michigan State on Nov. 5, when he threw for a career-high 295 yards and three touchdowns.
Now, with a full offseason under the assurance that he is the Gophers starter, Gray's comfort level at quarterback has spiked. A lack of confidence doesn't seem to be an issue anymore and his spiral on both short and long passes has been notably tightened.
Gray and the offense had plenty of shaky moments in the spring -- momentary lapses wrought with bad passes, missed assignments and an inability to quickly establish a rhythm -- which brought back reminders of what made the Gophers' owners of the Big Ten's worst offense in 2011.
But those instances were tempered by a heightened awareness and connection between Gray and the 10 others around him, leading to numerous and impressive big plays during scrimmages in the latter weeks of the spring, the 3-0 spring game notwithstanding.
Gray's progress and whether his perceived boost of confidence and maturity accounts for a statistical upheaval cannot be accurately judged until he is in the spotlight in the Gophers' season opener Aug. 30 at UNLV. But the coaching staff has not softened its strong backing of Gray.
"He's not putting himself in as many bad spots once that ball is snapped, because there is that better awareness and better ability to read things," Limegrover said. "Now, he feels more comfortable. I think if you have a kid like that and he feels comfortable, the sky's the limit."
Who's No. 2?
With Gray solidified as the starter, at least for the first half of the season, the only true battle here will be for the backup role.
Shortell, 19, would seem to be the obvious choice. He immediately caught the eye of onlookers in his freshman year when he led a fourth-quarter scoring drive in the Gophers' season opener against USC while Gray was sidelined with dehydration.
With that game in mind, a faction of fans called for Shortell to start as soon as Gray ran into week-to-week struggles. But in the limited playing time he had after the opener, Shortell underwent the common freshman growing pains, finishing 26-of-54 passing (48.1%) for 309 yards.
No longer the scrawny, wide-eyed freshman he was last season, Shortell was a beneficiary of the team's upgraded offseason strength program -- up 25 pounds from his listed weight of 215 in 2011. He has a clear advantage over incoming freshmen Nelson and Leidner, as well the redshirt freshman, Foreman.
Nelson and Leidner have added competition at quarterback, helped by the pair's decision to early enroll and join the team in January. Nelson, a product of Mankato West High School, was one of top prospects in the state of Minnesota and as a result brings with him a stream of hype. The Gophers coaching staff has high expectations for Nelson, who could make a bid for the starting job in 2013.
But the question remains whether the Gophers plan to keep a redshirt on Nelson and Leidner. Unlike a year ago, when a dearth of options forced Kill to use Shortell as a freshman, the Gophers could conceivably make it through the season, barring injuries, without the necessity of using Nelson or Leidner in sporadic situations.
While Kill is not as uneasy about the situation at quarterback as he was last season, he isn't ready to go public about the long-term plans for his two freshmen.
"You can't really make that decision until you go through two-a-day camp and after the summer. You'd like to, but I don't think we're in a situation to do that right yet," Kill said. "We felt like we needed competition and depth at that position and that is a position that we feel very good about right now."
Jerry Kill's take on ... MarQueis Gray
"There's no question MarQueis is a talented young man. He's come a long way. I think he's going to have a tremendous year. I think he'll have a breakout year. I don't think there's any question."
The short-term future of the Gophers' offense rests primarily on whether Gray can reach the Big Ten-caliber, dual-threat status those around him claim he is capable of matching.
Gray is a better, more confident quarterback than he was a year ago. But whether that translates into game-time situations is also dependent on the development of all facets of the offense, especially within the receiving corp.
To expect a dramatic improvement, especially right away, from the offense's sputtering origins last season is unrealistic. Gray is capable though of bringing the offense into the realm of respectability. It is essential for Gray to find a balance between waiting in the pocket for a receiver to get open and when to make a run for it downfield.
Gray is going to be given more then enough chances to upgrade the offense. Even if he does struggle early on, the Gophers are not positioned to pull him from the No. 1 slot.
However, if the Gophers find themselves locked in a downward spiral similar to 2011, Kill will face the weighty decision of if or when it's time to begin grooming for the future, with Shortell and Nelson waiting in the wings.