Philip Nelson started the final seven games at quarterback for Minnesota last season as a true freshman, including a solid performance in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. But Gophers head coach Jerry Kill didn't declare Nelson the 2013 starter, instead making him battle it out this spring with youngsters Chris Streveler and Mitch Leidner.
Nelson says that's just fine with him.
"With Coach Kill, there will always be a competition at every single position, and he's going to play the best players who perform at practice," Nelson told ESPN.com. "That's nothing new to me. You saw that last year, with him making all those changes."
One of the biggest changes last season, of course, was giving Nelson the start in Minnesota's seventh game, against Wisconsin. Before that, he hadn't played at all and looked headed toward a redshirt. Nelson came out of the gate strong, including a 246-yard, three-touchdown effort against Purdue in his second start. But he struggled after that before rebounding in the bowl game.
"Just being thrown into the fire and having to really just execute and think, it was an eye-opening experience for sure," Nelson said.
The decision seems to be paying off this spring, as Nelson has used his experience to put a firm grip on the No. 1 quarterback job.
"You always get questions as a coach when you pull a redshirt off a kid," Kill said. "But I think that proved out to be smart, because the experience he gained during the season has allowed him to be much more comfortable in spring ball and progress as a quarterback."
Nelson is still only 19. But safety Brock Vereen says the quarterback is "carrying himself as if he were a senior. Every time I see him, he's always watching film or carrying the playbook. He might be the starter now, but he's carrying himself like he's fighting for a spot."
Nelson said he never viewed himself as the leader in the clubhouse to start. Instead, he went to work this offseason, working out on his own with the receivers and backs to build chemistry and timing.
"I wanted to get to know all the receivers so it ends up being effortless," he said. "I don't think about where the ball needs to go and I can put it on people now."
The game started to slow down for him during the extra bowl practices, and that has continued this spring.
"I'm getting used to the little things that the defense gives away to know what coverage they'll be in," he said. "I'm able to relax in the pocket and make the right throws."
Though he hasn't officially been anointed the starter again by Kill, Nelson is well on his way toward earning that distinction again. And then his job will be to revive a passing game that tied for third-worst in the Big Ten last year.
"The expectations are to make some huge strides and be an explosive offense," Nelson said. "That's the goal, and that's what we want to do."