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Updated: October 9th, 2012 4:31pm
MarQueis Gray returns to Gophers practice, but uncertain for Saturday

MarQueis Gray returns to Gophers practice, but uncertain for Saturday

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Even after a bye week to regroup, the Gophers' quarterback situation remains hazy.

MarQueis Gray returned to practice Sunday, but whether or not the senior quarterback will be healthy enough to play in the Gophers' homecoming match-up on Saturday against Northwestern is up to debate.

Out since Sept. 15 with a high ankle and knee sprain, Gray was cleared for limited drills and reps when the Gophers resumed practice Sunday after a two-day hiatus. It was a significant step forward for Gray, whose rehab progress had briefly stalled in recent weeks.

However, coach Jerry Kill is hesitant to predict if it means he will be able to play in some capacity on Saturday.

"I pushed him a little bit, and I thought he responded OK," Kill said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. "I think we'll know a little more today. He took some reps. We even did a little bit with team reps, but he still has a little bit of a limp."

"If we were playing tomorrow, he wouldn't be ready to play, but we'll see how things progress."

Gray was spotted walking into the Gophers' practice facility Tuesday without a noticeable hitch in his step, as had been the case in previous weeks. When asked in passing how his injured left leg was feeling he replied, "Pretty darn good."

For now, Kill is "cautiously optimistic" that Gray can be a factor into the game plan versus Northwestern.

With the Gray's health still very much in question, it is highly likely that sophomore Max Shortell will start his third consecutive game and log a bulk of the offensive snaps. If Gray is available at all, his playing time is expected to come in a backup role to Shortell, especially given that he has not practiced for three weeks.

"If (Gray is) full tilt and ready to go, that's good for our football team," Kill said. "I think he'll let us know what he feels he can do within the offensive structure that we're in."

Shortell has proven to be a more than capable replacement option, fighting through the typical growing pains associated with taking over as a starter. In four games and three starts this season, he has thrown for 688 yards (51-of-86, 172 ypg.) and six touchdowns.

After guiding the Gophers to wins against Western Michigan and Syracuse, Shortell and the offense were derailed in their Big Ten opener at Iowa. As his receiving corps struggled to make catches and get into the right spots, Shortell stumbled through a deflating 31-13 loss - the Gophers' first of the season.

Though marred by three interceptions, he had moments where his composure was fully intact, completing 20 of his 33 passes for 197 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Shortell personally took fault for the offense's shortcomings in the aftermath of the defeat at Iowa, but during the bye week Kill put the burden more on the missteps of the Gophers' receivers -- botched routes and dropped balls.

It didn't matter to Shortell. He spent last week working through a series of stripped down fundamental drills with the offense, trying to get a firm grasp on his timing and decision-making. Shortell has also not the lost the confidence edge that had been building following back-to-back successful starts.

"I've felt I've done pretty good. Obviously I've missed some opportunities, some chances I want to have back, especially in the Iowa game, but I've felt our team has done pretty well and I feel great," Shortell said.

"We had a chance to do a lot more simple pass completion (drills), throwing to receivers, more than we maybe would in a normal practice. That extra time really gave us the time to refocus, especially with our receiving corps."

Going from week to week not knowing exactly what his role will be come game time is nothing new to Shortell. That has been his reality for nearly two years. He was used in spot relief in the first half of his freshman season, including a start at Michigan when Gray was sidelined with a turf toe injury. But he attempted only one pass, an incompletion against Wisconsin, in the final six games.

Shortell has evolved in the last year into a more fine-tuned and confident passer, albeit still with a layer of rawness to his game. It is unclear how his performance in the last three weeks in light of his increased responsibilities will influence how the Gophers will proceed once Gray is fully healthy.

Before Gray went down, the Gophers had shied away from using a two-quarterback system. That may change if offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover finds a workable way to balance Gray's up-tempo, mobile-infused style with Shortell's talents as a pocket passer.

Shortell admits that the wait-and-see approach he has had to take on has been frustrating at times, but his weekly mentality has gone fairly unaltered.

"It's tough to say, 'Is MarQueis going to be healthy or not?" Shortell said. "But being the backup you still have to focus like you're going to play every week. You still have to game plan like you're going to be the guy anyway, just in case something happens. It's just like any other week. Even if I was the backup, I have to focus and be ready to play."

That is what Shortell will have to do again this week. Shortell appears to be a near-lock to start Saturday, but Gray could be inserted periodically if his leg continues to heal at its current rate. Don't expect the Gophers let on too much about what they plan to do until game time.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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