Gophers have talented, but largely green group at quarterback
AUG 10, 2013 10:57p ET
"That'd be interesting," the Gophers assistant said. "Just put all five out there and say, 'Go.'"
Multiple layers of athleticism under center have Minnesota excited about its quarterback prospects, both this year and beyond. The coaching staff is already expected to use at least two different guys regularly at the season's outset, and fall practices have given them ample opportunity to test the players behind them in different scenarios.
When asked Saturday about the luxury of possessing such versatility, "neat" was Zebrowski's adjective of choice following the Gopher's first fall scrimmage.
"We're really lucky here, with kids at quarterback, that are terrific athletes," he said as the last of about 350 fans filed out of TCF Bank Stadium following the open-to-the-public, 1 ½-hour practice session. "And they're quarterbacks, too, but they're terrific athletes. (Philip Nelson) is a really good athlete, and Mitch (Leidner) is a big athlete, and then you get Chris (Streveler) and Donovahn (Jones) who can handle a lot, so it's nice to have those kind of opportunities to do some different things with those kids."
Each underclassman brings a different array of talents.
Nelson is the closest thing to a dual-threat signal caller that can thrive in Minnesota's pro-style attack, and thus is expected to earn the starting nod but share a lot of snaps with Leidner. His status as the best passer of the bunch is aided by his ability to escape the pocket and throw on the run -- when he's sharp.
Unexpectedly thrust into a starter's role during last year's injury-riddled season, the Mankato native struggled to find a rhythm. He completed just 49.3 of his passes and threw as many touchdown tosses as he did interceptions (eight).
There will be no surprises this year, though, and a full offseason under his belt has been a huge mental boost, Nelson said. The same goes for his young position mates, all of whom are freshmen.
"It's like night and day," Nelson said. "Last year, it was kind of a question mark, but this year, our identity is established. We know what we need to do. Quarterbacks need to be able to manage the game, being able to put the ball in the right hands at the right time and being accurate with the ball.
"That’s really our job."
Nelson's partner in what could wind up being another Jerry Kill-employed two-quarterback system (the coach used it at Northern Illinois in 2010), redshirt freshman Leidner is more prone to tuck and run when plays break down.
Which is just fine with his position coach, given Leidner's ability to read blocks and turn negative scenarios into defense-frustrating gains.
"A great quarterback is a great eraser," Zebrowski said. "You take mistakes that other people make, and you correct them. Peyton Manning does it by sliding or making a throw while he's avoiding getting hit. Other guys can escape pressure or whatever and make a bad play that could be bad better."
Minnesota entered fall camp knowing those two could battle it out long into the season for the fulltime starting job, a competition that may never ultimately be resolved.
But Jones and Streveler, both members of Kill's 2013 recruiting class, present a pair of wild cards.
There's a good chance both redshirt, especially Streveler, whom Zebrowski described as a contact-seeking bruiser who may actually be the fastest of the bunch. If that's the case, the Crystal Lake, Ill., product could fit well in Minnesota's zone-read option scheme down the line.
Jones is a Stockbridge, Ga., native who ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash in high school. The Gophers courted him as a quarterback, but he's the kind of gifted athlete that can be used at multiple positions.
Saturday, he tried his hand at receiver for the first time, with mixed results. He caught a 10-yard pass on a sharp in route but fumbled as he was being brought to the ground. He also hauled in a long fade along the left sideline while taking a heavy hit from Daletavious McGhee but was ruled out of bounds.
Additionally, Jones has fielded kickoffs and punts this fall, Kill said.
"I just wanted to see how he'd go up and catch a ball and catch a hitch," Kill said. "Playing quarterback, he knows kind of what he needs to do. I just kind of wanted to see what he'd do, and he looked like he did some good things. He can really run."
Working predominantly with the first string against the Gophers' No. 1 defense, Nelson had the best outing of the quarterbacks Saturday, completing a reporter-tabulated 9 of 15 passes for 82 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown pass to converted receiver K.J. Maye in the right flat.
Maye, who made the switch from running back this offseason, caught three passes for 21 yards, and fellow wideout Victor Keise grabbed three for 34 yards.
But the day's brightest highlight came courtesy of freshman running back Berkley Edwards. On his first carry, the 5-foot-9, 190-pound true freshman squirted up the middle and sprinted 70 yards for a score.
"I went crazy," said Maye, a 19-year-old sophomore. "I love seeing those young guys do that kind of stuff."
Leidner ran the No. 2 offense and admitted his unit could've had a better day after he connected on 5 of 10 passing attempts for 46 yards. Minnesota's second-string defensive front often forced the pocket around Leidner to collapse and earned a couple of non-contact sacks.
A handful of big names were held out of the scrimmage, but none have any serious ailments, Kill said. Receiver Jamel Harbison (tight hamstring), safety Brock Vereen (knee), cornerback Derrick Wells (shoulder) and offensive lineman Ed Olson (flu) all missed the afternoon workout.
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