Notebook: MarQueis Gray improving, but not ready to return to practice
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The Gophers aren't saying it officially, but the likelihood of quarterback MarQueis Gray being available even in a backup capacity for the team's Saturday match-up against Syracuse is almost zero.
However, the senior quarterback is improving from the high left ankle sprain and tweaked knee he suffered last week in the Gophers' victory over Western Michigan.
Gray participated in the team stretch before Wednesday's practice and was able to do limited drills with the training staff, although he has yet to run on his injured leg.
"He wasn't real fast, to be honest with you, but he did jog and move around," Kill said after practice. "Is he ready to go tomorrow? No, but he showed progress. Again, he keeps showing progress ... It's day by day. I don't know how long it will be."
The timetable for a return from a high ankle sprain is usually two to four weeks. Gray is ahead of schedule, having already started to regain mobility. His progress makes it a possibility that he will be available when the Gophers open the Big Ten season at Iowa on Sept. 29.
Sophomore Max Shortell has taken over Gray's responsibilities in the short term and is primed to make his third career start on Saturday.
Shortell was composed and efficient in his two spot appearances this season. After a one touchdown, 5-of-6, 72-yard passing performance in the fourth quarter of the Gophers trouncing of New Hampshire, Shortell responded to Gray's abrupt departure against Western Michigan with three touchdowns and 188 yards through the air (10-of-17).
But there is a considerable difference between an off the bench, fill-in role and going through a week knowing you will start. Shortell has to prove he can do the latter without struggling excessively.
His demeanor and presence in the pocket has been notably ratcheted up since his first career start, almost a year ago. When he last started in place of Gray, the confidence boost from his impressive freshman debut in the team's season opener did not carry through. Admittedly it was a precarious situation, but Shortell and the Gophers were berated by Michigan in a 58-0 debacle at the Big House.
Fast-forward to present day, Shortell says he is a shell of the wide-eyed freshman he was then.
"The comfortability is at a completely different level than it was a year ago," Shortell said. "I'm so comfortable with my O-line and receivers that I can trust in them in any situation."
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover agrees. The pair have spoken this week about that woeful first start and have come to the conclusion that a repeat isn't likely to happen.
"Talking to him about that, he said, 'Hey, that seems like a 100 years away,'" Limegrover said. "He's been around. He's been able to contribute. We feel really good. He had a real good day of practice ... There's a definite air of confidence. I think he knows he can beat just about anybody. He's a quarterback. He's got that air about him. He didn't have that last year."
Injuries have become more of a concern for the Gophers entering Week 4.
Kill noted that his team is "banged up" and expressed worries about how the limited depth at his disposal will hold up on Saturday.
Besides Gray, backup junior cornerback Martez Shabazz is sidelined for at least another week with a dislocated right toe.
Starting center Zach Mottla, who sprained his ankle in practice last week, missed last Saturday's game and is highly questionable to play against Syracuse. Mottla did practice Tuesday and Wednesday, but Kill said he was not at full strength.
Redshirt sophomore Zac Epping has moved over from his starting spot at right guard to replace Mottla at center. The Gophers are hopeful Mottla can be available Saturday, though he likely wouldn't be used in anything beyond a backup role.
From sightings at practice this week, it appears there are other lingering injuries, but Kill said he would not address them until the team releases an injury report on Thursday.
Starting defensive end and the Gophers' sack leader D.L. Wilhite was in an orange no-contact jersey on Tuesday. It is uncertain what is keeping him out of practice.
However, Wilhite took a heavy blow to his head when teammate Ra'Shede Hageman accidentally ran into him on sack attempt late in the fourth quarter against Western Michigan. The senior defensive end stayed on the ground for an extended period, clutching his head, until eventually exiting the game. This leaves the possibility that he could be experiencing concussion symptoms.
Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said if Wilhite were unable to play, freshman Alex Keith would be used in the rotation to fill the vacant spot.
Second team offensive lineman Joe Bjorklund was also in a non-contact jersey on Wednesday.
• Claeys was pleased with the way his cornerbacks responded to being down a man - Shabazz -- against Western Michgian's passing attack.
"I thought the secondary guys performed awfully well, especially with all (Western Michigan's) personnel groups and different calls. They did a nice job for being a guy short."
• Secondary running backs Devon Wright and K.J. Maye, used mainly to inject added speed periodically into the offense, did not factor in last Saturday's game. Limegrover said that was a result of the quarterback switch and has been addressed this week.
"There were some things that we would do with MarQueis that we wouldn't do with Max," Limegrover said. "So when MarQueis went down it kind of stripped that part of it away. So what we'll do this week is make sure, knowing that Max has a good chance at being that guy in there and playing, we have more with those guys in there with him."
• As he has done in the last two weeks, Kill will be on campus Friday dolling out free tickets to students. There was a sizable chunk of unsold student tickets for Saturday's game remaining as of Wednesday. The tickets are being sold for $10. The Gophers fell short of a sellout by almost 6,000 people last week, announcing an attendance of 44,921.