Gophers sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson confidently led the offense through every drill during the team’s first spring practice Tuesday, and then he chuckled, comparing it to his first day one year ago.
“Last spring, you had to think about the cadence,” he said. “That was like the No. 1 thing on my mind.”
With a full year under his belt, including seven games as a starting quarterback, the 19-year-old looked far more composed, connecting on most of his passes, with the exception of a few overthrows. He rated it as “ten times more smooth than last spring’s first practice.”
It was a good sign for the Gophers, whose primary backup options behind Nelson are just as young or younger. Redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner showed off a strong arm Tuesday but didn’t look quite as polished as Nelson, and true freshman Chris Streveler had a hard time finding his rhythm.
Streveler is in the same position Nelson and Leidner were last year, graduating from high school a semester early so he could enroll at the university in time for spring practice.
“I’m trying to be the best help I can to Chris because I know what it’s like to be that guy who comes in and doesn’t really know exactly what’s going to happen,” Nelson said. “And I know today he was nervous, but he did a great job just getting the cadence down and steps and remembering plays.”
The Gophers have 14 more spring practice sessions for these quarterbacks to prove themselves, culminating with the spring game April 27. Nelson is the incumbent starter, but coach Jerry Kill has made it clear the other two candidates will get a good look.
Nelson is taking nothing for granted, even though he spent Tuesday working exclusively with the first-team offense.
“In my mind, I wouldn’t really say I’m the starting quarterback,” he said. “I would say I still need to compete just like everybody else. That’s how Coach Kill does it. He makes everybody compete. Nobody has a guaranteed spot.”
When told that Nelson doesn’t view himself as the starter, Kill was pleased.
“I think he knows who we are,” Kill said. “If you go back and look at when we’ve been successful [as a coaching staff] at the other stops, it’s been a competitive situation.”
Kill drew a comparison to his coaching staff’s three-year stint at Northern Illinois from 2008 to 2010.
“[Quarterback] Chandler Harnish didn’t have a chance to just settle in and get comfortable because he had Jordan Lynch sitting right behind him,” Kill said.
Nelson had some ups and downs after Kill gave him the starting job last season.
The highlight was a 246-yard, three-touchdown-pass performance against Purdue on Oct. 23. But the lowlights were the Nebraska and Michigan State games, when he passed for a combined 120 yards with no touchdowns and five interceptions.
But the offensive line got healthy in time for the Meineke Car Care Bowl, and Nelson had a strong showing against Texas Tech, passing for two second-half touchdowns. It ended in disappointment, however, as Nelson’s last pass deflected off Derrick Engel’s hands for an interception, setting up the Red Raiders’ game-winning field goal.
That night, Nelson said players were entering the offseason with “a chip on their shoulder,” adding motivation to their workouts. Players are on their own to work without coaches that time of year, and Kill said he was pleased how Nelson took charge.
Nelson knew those seven-on-seven sessions would help him build chemistry with the team’s receivers, which is another inexperienced group. Junior wide receiver Isaac Fruechte said Nelson went so far as to set up individual sessions with receivers who couldn’t make it with the rest of the group.
“He opened himself to let people come whenever they needed, which is huge, I think, for a quarterback and a leader of the team,” Fruechte said.
For Kill, stories like that only re-enforce the decision not to redshirt Nelson last season.
“I certainly was questioned about pulling the redshirt, and I think probably that’s probably helped him,” Kill said. “He’s been in tough situations as a very young player, so that should help his maturity this season.”