Demry Croft appeared to be operating on borrowed time six weeks ago. He was demoted for poor play and then suspended for violating team rules, stretching the patience of a head coach who didn’t recruit him.

Even when Croft returned from suspension and clearly gave the Gophers their best option at quarterback, coach P.J. Fleck kept Croft in his crosshairs.

“I’ve got to be able to trust that you’re going to do all the right things before you lead this football team,” Fleck fumed after a loss at Purdue.

It was fair to wonder then: Will this guy even be around next season?

Thirty-five days later, Croft finally looked like a leader last Saturday with a stirring performance in a 33-point rout of Nebraska. The redshirt sophomore earned co-Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honors after rushing for 183 yards and three touchdowns.

Croft looked like a different player in body language and the way he ran the offense, particularly with his decision-making on option plays.

It was a performance — albeit against a fragile defense that displayed little resistance — that grabbed your attention because it revealed more of Croft’s talent.

One game isn’t definitive, but the way Croft played raises optimism, especially if he can build on that performance in the final two games.

Now it is fair to wonder: Can he be Fleck’s quarterback of the future?

Internally, Croft’s stock is rising. He angered the coaching staff with his undisclosed off-field mistakes. Unprompted, Fleck also mentioned this week that Croft’s grades are improving, an indication that his academics were a concern.

New coaches typically want quarterbacks that they recruited, not inherited, and Fleck has made no secret of his desire to sign blue-chip quarterbacks. He recently offered a scholarship to a junior college quarterback, another sign that Fleck might not be sold on any quarterback yet for 2018, even though Croft has two seasons of eligibility remaining.

But Croft has made big strides in earning Fleck’s trust. His rushing performance against Nebraska set a record by a Gophers quarterback, and his passing has looked sharper in recent weeks. His statistics don’t necessarily reflect it, largely because his receivers have dropped numerous passes.

As important to Fleck, Croft has become invested in community service.

“I think he’s starting to find out what his purpose really is,” Fleck said. “And when you start to watch that in a young man, there’s nothing by coincidence of why he’s playing at a high level.”

I asked Fleck if he feels better now about Croft’s future with the program.

“I do [but] it’s not like you have five more chances to screw up, though,” he said. “He’s kind of squeezed all the juice from the orange. I’ve seen a man grow up very quickly. I’ve seen a lot of change in Demry, and I am proud of him.”

Maybe this is a case of a young man maturing and realizing his responsibilities as a major-college quarterback. Hopefully that is the case because it would be a shame to see his talent wasted. A waste, too, if the Gophers feel compelled to start over at that position next season with a first-time starter without seeing the benefits of having Croft gain valuable experience this season.

Playing well in the final two games — or three, if the Gophers reach a bowl — could set a course for Croft. “I definitely feel better about [my future],” he said.

Croft put in community service time during his team suspension and began serving meals at Loaves and Fishes. He discovered so much joy in helping those in need that he continues to volunteer twice a week.

“I love serving and giving to those people in the community that don’t always get a hand out to them,” he said.

He’s formed a bond with one woman in particular. The woman avoided eye contact and said nothing the first time he gave her a plate. She looked him in the eyes on his next visit. The two met again last week.

“She had a big smile and said thank you,” Croft said. “She had a Gophers jacket on. It was pretty sweet to have her smile at me.”

Croft scored major victories on and off the field last week. His performance against Nebraska was eye-opening in a way that makes you want to see where it leads.

If he continues to improve and behave like a leader, the perception that he is merely a placeholder until Fleck finds a new quarterback ultimately might be proven wrong.

 

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com