Notebook: Freshman Philip Nelson discovering his comfort level at QB
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The nerves are starting to wear off for Gophers freshman quarterback Philip Nelson.
Nelson confirmed that sentiment last Friday under the lights at TCF Bank Stadium when he unfurled a 45-yard pass towards the left side of the endzone that found its way smoothly into the hands of receiver A.J. Barker.
"From my standpoint, I'm on the sideline going 'Jeez,'" senior quarterback MarQueis Gray said. "He's come ready to work."
After looking rocky and slightly out of his element in the first three weeks of spring ball, Nelson has recently found a level of stability under center and with it has come an added layer of competition at quarterback -- a position where, as of now, Gray stands in the starting role.
Nelson can be forgiven if he appeared overwhelmed at times this spring, especially given that the rest of his Mankato West high school class of 2012 is still a month away from graduating. Nelson however opted to forgo the final five months of his senior year, and instead, with his diploma already in hand, enrolled at the "U" in January.
His early arrival on campus has been an unquestionable boost in softening the leap from high school to the collegiate level. While his fellow freshmen will walk to the practice field wide-eyed at the start of fall camp, Nelson will be well past that stage.
Shedding an initial wave of shakiness, Nelson is reverting to the persona that put him at the top of the Gophers' list of recruiting targets. The second half of practices in the last week have been dedicated to scrimmaging, which has forced him to quickly adapt to running the offense at full speed. Most of his reps have come with the second or third team offense, and the outcome has been promising. Along with a swift 25-plus yard run he pulled off last Tuesday, Nelson has showed off his arm strength and ability ti pull off a big gain with several long-distance throws, including the one to Barker.
The coaching staff has taken notice. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said he is "very pleased" with the progress Nelson has shown his short time in Maroon and Gold.
"He's a guy that has really picked it up quickly, so the more he's seen the better off he's become and the more confident he's become."
Nelson is being groomed to eventually be poised to grasp the starting gig, but that ascension is in all likelihood at least a year away. Though he will remain in the quarterback discussion with Gray and back-up Max Shortell into fall camp, Nelson is more likely to redshirt or take on a secondary role in the upcoming season, assuming the QB corps remains healthy.
Jerry Kill is promising that the Gophers "are really going to heat it up" when they conclude the spring season with the annual spring game on Saturday (11 a.m.). In a departure from how the coaching staff has treated the final practice session in recent years, dating back to Kill's tenure at Northern Illinois, the Gophers are injecting a game-day feeling into Saturday's festivities.
The team has already been divided into two squads, with coaches, trainers and members of the equipment staff all being included in the mix. A non-padded walkthrough will be held Friday -- an unofficial practice day -- to acquaint the players with how Saturday will play out.
"I think it'll be fun," Kill said. "It's the first time in a long time that we've done it this way, but I think it'll be good for the people in the crowd and the competition ... The kids have worked hard for us. We'll let them have a little fun and have some good ol' fashion competition."
• As the Gophers prep for the spring game, Thursday's practice -- the team's final regular practice of the spring -- was used to ensure the entirety of the roster saw the field during a brief scrimmage.
"We shortened practice a little bit, but I thought the intensity was good," Kill said. "And for as many kids as we played today we didn't have a lot of mental mistakes."
In the surprise moment of the day, redshirt freshman quarterback Dexter Foreman was given control of the offense for the first time. Equipped with a "nothing to lose mentality," the notably loose Foreman completed a 15-yard pass on his first play and proceeded to move the offense in efficient fashion.
• Coordinator Tracy Claeys said he feels "comfortable with the first 13 to 16 kids" on defense, which has been the reason the second and third team units have seen an uptick in playing time during scrimmages.
• Senior linebacker Keanon Cooper is recovering "extremely well" from wrist surgery he underwent several weeks prior to the start spring ball, Claeys said. Cooper has taken to a coaching role from the sidelines as he has been held from any live drills. The Gophers are expecting no setbacks in his rehab and are projecting to have him fully healthy for the start of two-a-days.
Cooper has been a figure of leadership and courage for the Gophers in the wake of the tragic passing of former teammate Gary Tinsley, whose body was discovered on April 6 by Cooper on the floor of the on-campus dorm the two roommates shared.
"He's a tough kid, I'll tell you what," Claeys said. "I don't know if I could have done what he did, with the funeral and how he's handled things around his teammates. I think he has the respect of everyone that has been around him in these past few weeks for what he's done."
• Kill mentioned after both practices this week that he has been impressed by the sudden growth shown by his youthful group of wide receivers. As a result, the Gophers have been calling an increased number of deep pass plays, which have produced several highlight worthy catches throughout the ranks from sure-to-be starter Devin Crawford-Tufts to junior college transfer Derrick Engel.
• Linebacker Mike Rallis (hamstring) and running backs David Cobb (hamstring) and Devon Wright (hamstring) were again confined to the team's no-contact group on Thursday. All three injuries are minor, but the Gophers have no need to take a risk, meaning the trio will likely sit out the spring game. Other non-participants on Saturday will include Cooper (wrist), safety Brock Vereen (knee), receiver Marcus Jones (knee), offensive lineman Jimmy Gjere (concussion) and linebacker Brendan Beal (knee).