Jerry Kill not worried about giving Philip Nelson frequent green light
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Two weeks into another college football season, a surprising name is situated among the Big Ten's top-10 leading rushers.
Minnesota Gophers sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson has raced his way to a team-leading 205 yards on the ground in back-to-back victories to open the year, including tearing through the heart of the New Mexico State defense last Saturday for a 122 yards and a touchdown.
Nelson' breakout run game, which stands as the 13th highest rushing total by a Gophers quarterback in program history, moved him into the seventh spot on the Big Ten's season leaderboard.
In his seven-game freshman campaign, Nelson, thrust under center three games into Big Ten play, ran the ball 69 times for 184 yards. It has taken him less than half as many carries (27) to eclipse that total this season.
The Gophers' offense was always meant to be run-oriented, but in a two-game stretch their offensive production has been blatantly run-dominated. With Nelson owning only 38 pass attempts on the year, the Gophers rank last in the Big Ten in completion percentage, having connected on 18 of those attempts for 226 yards (47.4%).
But a well-formed passing attack hasn't been needed yet for a squad that, thanks in part to five special teams and defensive touchdowns, has put up 95 points in two games -- the Gophers' highest total in back-to-back games since 2005.
Nelson isn't the only one who has gotten in on the run game action as tailbacks Rodrick Williams Jr., David Cobb and Donnell Kirkwood have contributed to the third highest rushing output in the conference (563 yards).
However, Nelson's outburst has been the most impressive. The defenses the Gophers have faced - UNLV and New Mexico State - were sub-par, but Nelson took full advantage by tormenting them out of his team's option-read style
With any option quarterback with a proven ability to run, the question of longevity arises. Can Nelson hold up if the Gophers continue to allow him to carry a heavy load in the ground game?
Coach Jerry Kill isn't worried about giving his young quarterback the frequent green light.
"We're an option team. That's part of it," Kill said on Tuesday You've got to protect yourself. You've got to be smart. We'll coach him to do that ... There will be some games that he may not carry as much. It's just according to how (opponents) play the option."
But playing smart doesn't mean you will be seeing Nelson sliding to avoid a hit any time soon.
"We always want to be fighting for the extra yard," Nelson said. "We want to play hard. To be honest with you, that's almost the way I've always played."
Backup quarterback Mitch Leidner remains an intriguing piece in the discussion of how many runs to saddle Nelson with. Leidner, a redshirt freshman, has been in on only seven plays, with his time coming at the end of games. When he has taken snaps, six of those plays have seen him run for a combined 50 yards.
Kill has repeatedly expressed his intention to mold Leidner into the current offense, focusing on having him take some of the run burden off Nelson. In a similar refrain to his comments after the win against UNLV, Kill noted he wanted Leidner in the game earlier than he was at New Mexico State.
"He's done a nice job when he's gone in," Kill said. "I wished we had played him more in the fourth quarter, but we didn't have the ball much. I've said all along that Mitch will have a role as it goes on and as we progress as an offense."
Leidner is likely to be factored in more often, but the "U" offense is still one that rests largely in Nelson and tailback crew's hands.
Or feet, in this case.