Minnesota’s quarterback picture for 2014 gained more clarity on Thursday, but probably not in the way coach Jerry Kill and the Gophers wanted.
Philip Nelson, who started the majority of the 2013 season after taking over the job midway through his freshman campaign of 2012, is transferring. He released a statement to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune that said he was “looking to play in a system that centers more around the pass game which utilizes my skill sets.”
Nelson started nine games last season and played in 12. But he was pulled early in the Gophers’ Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse in favor of Mitch Leidner, and Leidner played most of the rest of the way. He and Leidner split time at quarterback early in the season, but Nelson appeared to take control of the position and was under center during Minnesota’s four-game Big Ten winning streak.
Nelson’s father, Pat, told the Star-Tribune that “this whole entire conversation started a long time ago. The bowl game had nothing to do with it.”
The Gophers struggled to throw the ball effectively most of the season and relied heavily on the run game, including ground support from their quarterbacks. Nelson completed just 50.5 percent of his passes in 2013 after connecting on 49.3 percent during seven starts in 2012. He looked like the better passer in the competition with Leidner, though neither guy ever got a lot of help from the receiving corps.
Nelson views himself more as a pro-style pocket passer than a dual-threat guy. For a prime example of what Kill wants in a quarterback, just look to Northern Illinois, his previous coaching stop. He recruited and helped develop Jordan Lynch. Running the ball from the quarterback spot is part of the plan.
This spring likely would have featured an open competition among Nelson, Leidner and redshirt freshman Chris Streveler. With all three bunched so closely together in class -- Leidner will be a redshirt sophomore -- it’s not surprising to see one of them transfer. But it is stunning nevertheless that the guy who has played and started the most at quarterback is leaving, and his parting words about needing to find a better pass offense do not inspire much confidence in Minnesota’s ability to fix that part of its offense.
Nelson was also a very important recruit at one time for Kill, as he was the Minnesota player of the year and a highly decorated prospect who decided to stay home. For a program that has not traditionally had great success in signing the bluest of blue-chip recruits from its own backyard, it’s disappointing to see Nelson leave.
At least the Gophers have options. Leidner is a load running the ball at 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, though he still needs refinement as a passer. There are some who claim Streveler is the most talented of the three, and now he’ll have a clearer path to playing time.
Minnesota might be better off picking a starter and riding him than having an endless back-and-forth at quarterback, but one player needs to separate himself from the pack. The herd has surprisingly thinned now that Nelson is gone.