With Max Shortell starting, Gophers want to make most of 'big arm'
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Gophers coach Jerry Kill bristles slightly at the questions and the phrase "quarterback controversy."
But whatever the long-term future is of the team's quarterback situation, sophomore Max Shortell will step in as the starter Saturday when the Gophers attempt to stretch their season opening win streak to four games against Syracuse.
MarQueis Gray, injured on a run in the second quarter of the Gophers' win last weekend over Western Michigan, is likely at least two weeks away from having his left ankle and knee back to full strength.
Since Sunday when the extent of Gray's injury was determined, the Gophers have gone about their weekly game preparations with Shortell slotted into the No. 1 spot and true freshman Philip Nelson ready to go as backup.
"I can't control injuries or what happens tomorrow or the next day," Kill said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. "I can control what we have today. If we're playing tomorrow, Max Shortell is our guy that we're playing, and Philip has to be the backup, and (freshman) Mitch Leidner has got to be ready to play."
"There's no avoiding to that. If MarQueis is able to get himself healthy enough to be available, that's a good thing, but that's the approach we'll take."
The Gophers received good news Sunday when it was verified that no structural damage to Gray's knee or ankle had taken place. But the severe sprain will still take time to heal.
Kill was unsure how much, if at all, Gray will be available this week in practice. The senior quarterback is working regularly with trainers. His leg was reportedly remained notably sore as of Monday and has not been cleared for practice.
What exactly Gray's role will be Saturday is a bit hazy. It is close to certain though that if he saw the field at all it would in a vastly limited capacity.
"I talked to him yesterday, and I said your goal is to try to be a backup on Saturday and be prepared to play," Kill said. "Now, that's a pretty drastic goal, but you've got to have something to shoot for, so we'll see how it works out."
If there is any uneasiness within the team about having a new starter thrown into the mix, Kill and company are not letting it show.
It helps that Shortell, who bided his time in a secondary role for the last year, thrived in his most recent emergency appearance. After Gray went down, Shortell, displaying well-timed passing, led the Gophers to touchdowns on their next three possessions and put them in position to nurse a lead throughout the second half.
Renewed attention has been drawn to Shortell's ability and potential as a Big Ten starter and he'll have a chance, at least temporarily, to show that he can handle the elevated responsibility.
Shortell is obviously a different style quarterback than Gray, relying more on his arm and pocket presence then the athletic mobility to make plays with his feet. In two games this season, he has thrown for 260 yards (15-of-23) and four touchdowns.
The Gophers offense will have to adapt, as it did last Saturday, to Shortell's pass-first tendencies.
"They are going to call the game a little bit differently when Max is in there compared to MarQueis," redshirt junior receiver Derrick Engel said. "With MarQueis you run a lot of quarterback power and zone reads, because he's so good on his feet. Where with Max you want to take advantage of his big arm."
With Nelson targeted as the backup to Shortell, worries have surfaced outside the program regarding the status of the true freshman's redshirt. Kill said that the Gophers have "no choice" but to proceed with Nelson primed to fill. A plan is in place, Kill insisted, if Shortell is forced out of the game briefly. However, he would not provide details.
Regardless of how Shortell performs Saturday, Kill refused to speculate if there will be any considerations made about potentially keeping Shortell in the starting position.
"Our approach is we're going to worry about playing this game, playing Syracuse," Kill replied. "We're in a good situation. If we weren't in a good situation, we wouldn't have won the game on Saturday. So we're good to go where we're at, and we'll take this week and see what it brings and we'll move forward from there, and the bottom line is we'll do what it takes to win."