MarQueis Gray only one of several key injury concerns for 'U' offense
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MINNEAPOLIS -- It didn't take long for Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray to end up back on the team's injury report.
After four weeks spent rehabbing his sprained left knee and ankle, Gray returned to the field last Saturday in the Gophers' 21-13 loss to Northwestern. But his return lasted less than three quarters.
Gray's availability when the Gophers travel to Madison Saturday for an encounter with Wisconsin is highly questionable after he reinjured his ankle on a run in the third quarter.
"I think he's about like where he was at in the off-week," coach Jerry Kill said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. "He's in a boot. I'm optimistic we can get him jogging some this afternoon ... But it's frustrating for him. I know that. It's frustrating for all of us, but you know, at the end of the day you care about all the kids. He's doing well and then comes up and he just had some tough luck. That's all there is to it."
Gray's status was shaky for much of last week as well. The Gophers opted to gradually ease Gray back into the offense, using him first as a wide receiver in. Kill said the team was set to continue to insert him out wide until sophomore quarterback Max Shortell was sidelined briefly after a hit to the head on the Gophers' second drive, forcing Gray to take over under center.
Gray stayed at quarterback for the next five offensive series, accumulating 86 yards rushing and another 66 through the air (7-of-11), before Northwestern's Ibraheim Campbell collided with Gray's left ankle on a tackle in the third quarter.
The sight of Gray in a walking boot on Tuesday is not an encouraging sign of his potential to play against Wisconsin. However, if he is cleared, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said the Gophers are likely to go with a similar game plan as the one they started with last Saturday.
"You try and say, 'What's the best thing to do? What's the best way to go about it?' Limegrover said. "And I think MarQueis playing some wide receiver is a way to get him on the field if he's not a 100 percent. We didn't want to play him at quarterback as much as we did."
Unless Gray improves significantly in the next five days, Shortell will start his fourth straight game.
Shortell led the Gophers on an efficient opening drive versus the Wildcats -- a 13-play possession that ended in a field goal. His accuracy fluctuated dramatically throughout the game as the offense could not find the endzone on any of the 36 plays Shortell was at quarterback.
Other injury notes
• The Gophers' offensive line has been down at least one man in each of its last four games. On Saturday, that number could reach five. Kill labeled starting left tackle Ed Olson as "highly questionable." The redshirt junior badly tweaked his right ankle when he got caught up on a defender and knocked to the ground awkwardly on a play in the third quarter against Northwestern.
Olson, who joins right tackle Josh Campion as the Gophers' only linemen to start all six games this season, did not practice Tuesday and had his right leg encased in a walking boot.
Backup right tackle Foster Bush was back in full pads after being out for two weeks with an injured left knee. Kill was unsure if he'll be made available Saturday.
• Depth at wide receiver has suddenly become a worrisome issue. Kill announced that three of his top six receivers -- sophomores Devin Crawford-Tufts, Isaac Fruechte and Marcus Jones -- are currently questionable for the trip to Madison with undisclosed injuries.
At his news conference, Kill said Crawford-Tufts would "probably not" be ready to play. After practice, however, Limegrover was more optimistic that Crawford-Tufts and Fruechte wouldn't have to be taken out of the receiving rotation.
"They're both banged up a little bit, but I don't anticipate it is anything that will prohibit either one Saturday from playing," Limegrover said.
"The toughest is when you're getting your game plan in on Tuesday and they're not able to go, now it becomes as much as it is a physical issue it becomes a mental issue. We've got to work that much quicker and work to get them ready for Saturday."
The receiving corps got a needed boost last weekend when freshman Andre McDonald tallied 33 yards on four receptions in his first game since making his collegiate debut in the Gophers' season opener at UNLV. The former Hopkins high school star's second career game may have been capped with a potentially game-tying touchdown had Shortell's pass on a 4th and goal attempt in the fourth quarter not been overthrown.
An infection in his leg caused by turf burn and later a brief hospital visit because of a minor heart issue had added up to put McDonald's freshman season on a four-game hiatus. But with McDonald now back, the Gophers' have a quality dimension in the passing game that they may have to utilize frequently at Wisconsin.
"He's proven to us that he can do some things. He went out there Saturday and was given the opportunity to make some plays," Gophers' top receiver A.J. Barker said. "It's too bad that fade couldn't have been more in play, because that's one of his strongest assets, those jump balls. I think a lot of people would have been impress with what he could have potentially done in that situation."
"He'll have to take on more of a role, more of a play-making role for us. I think Andre can do that."
• Nursing a laceration on one of his knees, safety Derrick Wells was cleared only for limited contact at practice Tuesday. The Gophers' secondary could take a significant hit Saturday if Wells is unable to play against 2011 Heisman candidate Montee Ball and Wisconsin' run-heavy offense.
In the Gophers' last two games, they have typically brought a safety, primarily Wells, down with the linebackers to provide additional run stopping support. Safety has been a surprisingly strong area for the "U" this season, but depth at the position is fragile. The secondary struggled at Iowa when a knee injury limited junior safety Brock Vereen to only nickel formation schemes, dramatically increasing the responsibilities of Wells and Cedric Thompson. Vereen and Thompson could be put into a similar situation if Wells misses a game.
• Defensive tackle Roland Johnson is also questionable for the second consecutive week with an unknown injury.