Conor Rhoda has emerged as a leading candidate to become the next Gophers starting quarterback, which is quite a twist, considering he almost gave up football last winter.
Former coach Tracy Claeys had been blunt, telling Rhoda his scholarship wouldn’t be renewed once he graduated last December. Rhoda was crushed. The former walk-on from Cretin-Derham Hall had looked forward to competing for the starting job this year, as a graduate student.
But Claeys didn’t want to mislead anybody. Rhoda is a pro-style quarterback, and Claeys was determined to move forward with a nimble dual-threat QB.
Jeff and Mary Sue Rhoda urged their son not to give up his football dreams, even if that meant transferring to another school.
“I kind of explored a couple options, but honestly, I was probably a week away from looking for a job,” Rhoda said Saturday.
When the Gophers fired Claeys in early January and replaced him with P.J. Fleck, it quickly changed the picture. With his strong, accurate arm and the experience that comes with being a fifth-year senior, Rhoda is better suited for the system Fleck and offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca run. They rely heavily on the run-pass-option, which demands quick decisionmaking from the QB.
Last year, Rhoda won the Gophers backup job over Demry Croft, who held down the No. 2 spot in 2015. When Mitch Leidner was out with a concussion last October, Rhoda led the Gophers to a 31-10 upset at Maryland, completing seven of 15 passes for 82 yards and a touchdown.
Most important that day, given the conservative game plan, Rhoda and the offense were turnover-free.
The film was enough to convince Fleck, whose 13-1 Western Michigan squad led the nation in fewest turnovers last year, with eight.
On Jan. 7, one day after getting hired at Minnesota, Fleck called Rhoda at about 7:15 a.m. The call woke Rhoda from a cold sleep, but he was quickly on his feet, hustling the one block from his house to the football facility.
Fleck said his message was: “Forget the football part. I can take care of you, teach you how to become a man and propel you into your future. And you’ve got a great shot at becoming the quarterback, just because it’s wide open.”
Said Rhoda: “It was the easiest sales job he’s probably ever done. I think I said yes in two minutes.”
Fleck didn’t have a scholarship for Rhoda that day but promised it would come. A couple weeks later, it did. Rhoda is taking graduate courses now after getting his degree in business and marketing education, with a minor in leadership.
“The last thing Conor wanted was to leave,” Jeff Rhoda said. “He never envisioned playing anywhere else. So it’s been really fun to see. He’s so energized and just so committed to this new vision for the Gophers, well beyond what he probably ever dreamed he would be.”
Leidner went 24-17 as a starter for the Gophers, pretty much holding down the job alone for the past three seasons. So it’s a big hole to fill.
Rhoda and Croft appear to be the two front-runners through five spring practices. Croft has the tools, but the question has long been his consistency.
Seth Green, who redshirted last year, is a dual-threat QB who probably would have had a better chance of winning the job under Claeys. Another candidate to watch is Tanner Morgan, an early enrollee from Union, Ky., who arrived in Fleck’s first recruiting class. Morgan appears shorter than his listed height of 6-2 but has fared well, considering he should still be a high school senior.
Fleck said he wants his quarterback to be a leader who has command of the offense and is a “decisive decisionmaker.”
Asked specifically about his Jan. 7 meeting with Rhoda, Fleck said, “We kind of hit it off very quickly, and he’s not guaranteed anything. It’s a wide-open race, but he’s the one that’s actually commanding a little bit from the football team on the offensive side. I’m very proud of the leadership he’s been able to at least show for five practices.”
If he would have started his job search, Rhoda said, he probably would have sought something in sales. For now, that can wait. After all, chances to lead a Big Ten offense don’t come around very often.