The potential was always there — the strong arm, the running ability, the knack for improvising.
But we hadn’t seen it all come together in an actual game — not for an extended period and not in a take-charge, this-team-is-mine way.
Demry Croft had been a mystery for the Gophers football team. He’d played briefly as a true freshman in 2015, spent last year as a redshirt and earned the co-starting quarterback job in training camp before decisions by himself and coach P.J. Fleck shelved the sophomore for two games and kept him on the sideline for another.
Then, last Saturday night, Croft had his “eureka!’’ moment. No, it wasn’t just his three fourth-quarter touchdown passes to Tyler Johnson that rallied the Gophers from a 17-point deficit to a 30-27 loss to then-No. 21 Michigan State. What Croft showed on Minnesota’s final drive was the ability to extend plays with his legs, to leave the opponent’s defense muttering to itself after a Houdini-like escape.
Facing third-and-16 from the Minnesota 49, Croft was flushed from the pocket and took off for the left sideline. Waiting to tackle him were Spartans cornerback Justin Layne and linebacker Chris Frey. Croft froze Layne with a fake, cut sharply between the two, tightroped down the sideline and gained 20 yards to keep Minnesota marching toward the game’s final score, with 1:06 to play.
“That play Demry makes on the sideline where he looks like he’s going out of bounds and tippy-toes — that’s balance, that’s creativeness or creativity,’’ Fleck said. “And those are hidden yards [gained] that you don’t sit there and say: OK, well, we have to call the exact right play on the exact right down on the exact right circumstance of the exact right situation and make it work perfectly to move the ball.’’
Fleck now has versatility available at quarterback, but the coach hasn’t announced whether Croft or senior Conor Rhoda will start for the Gophers (3-3, 0-3 Big Ten) against Illinois (2-4, 0-3) in Saturday’s homecoming game.
Croft replaced Rhoda in the second quarter against Michigan State. Signs point to Croft starting and fans certainly expect that, but Fleck is keeping it a mystery. What fans could see Saturday is a mixture of both, as was the case in the season’s first two games.
Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca wouldn’t tip his hand, either, but he likes Croft’s ability to make something out of nothing.
“It not only demoralizes [opposing defensive players], but now that defensive coordinator who actually made a really good call — schematically put his guys in a really good position — now he’s questioning, ‘Was it really the right call?’ ’’ Ciarrocca said.
Gaining back trust
The fact that Croft is under strong consideration to start shows that Fleck is seeing growth off the field from the quarterback, who missed the Middle Tennessee and Maryland games under a disciplinary suspension and did not play at Purdue. Fleck did not disclose the reason for the suspension, but on Tuesday during his weekly radio show on KFXN-FM he discussed his expectations in general terms.
“If you don’t to the right things, it does not matter who you are, you are going to pay a price and you are going to learn life lessons,’’ he said. “… Did we have a better chance of winning with Demry in the last few games? Maybe, maybe not. We’ll never know.”
Fleck later added, “We always say, if you can do it in front of your mom and dad and you can’t do it in front of the media, you shouldn’t probably do it.”
Croft was not made available for interviews this week, but after last week’s game he discussed how he’s grown through the experience. “Just changing my best every day, learning how to grow as a better person,’’ said Croft, who volunteered at People Serving People, a Minneapolis homeless shelter, in September and served meals at Loaves & Fishes earlier this week. “It’s a blessed feeling to be out there with the guys and just keep rowing the boat and seeing the smile on everybody’s faces.’’
Looking to roll
If Croft can continue to play like he did in the fourth quarter last week — when he completed eight of 14 passes for 131 yards and three TDs — then Fleck really doesn’t have a decision to make. And that already may be the case.
“It showed we can play with anybody,’’ senior receiver Eric Carter said. “Once we get our offense rolling, we can really move the ball and put up some points.”
Ciarrocca took it even further, emphasizing the Croft-to-Johnson connection.
“When they’re executing like that, that’s what makes offensive football so pretty to watch,’’ Ciarrocca said. “When it’s done right, it’s a beautiful thing. That last 10 minutes was fun to watch.”