Gophers quarterback Conor Rhoda had a fastball that reached 90 miles per hour in high school, so he was torn between playing college baseball or college football.
Summers were for baseball. He didn’t start attending football camps until right before his junior year at Cretin-Derham Hall. One day, after watching Rhoda perform at a Wisconsin camp, then-Badgers quarterbacks coach Matt Canada pulled him aside for a 20-minute chat.
“He said, ‘Who are you? I know nothing about you,’ ” Rhoda’s father, Jeff, recalled this week. “Conor’s always been under the radar.”
Recruited by the Gophers in both baseball and football, Rhoda eventually signed as a football walk-on in 2013. He gave up baseball and toiled quietly behind the scenes, finally earning a football scholarship this spring.
The fourth-year junior remains mostly anonymous in college football circles, but that will change Saturday, when he makes his first career start at Maryland.
With Mitch Leidner out because of a concussion, the Gophers hope Rhoda can overcome his inexperience and help end their two-game losing streak. Once Leidner’s injury became public, the Terps (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) became 6 ½-point favorites.
“I don’t think there is anybody walking through the hallways with their head down because Conor Rhoda is playing,” Gophers defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said. “We’ve seen him play good. He has a good arm. He can throw to any part of the field, which is a good thing.”
For now, Gophers fans will have to take the team’s word for it. Rhoda has played in only three college games, completing one of two passes for 6 yards. But he has outlasted several quarterbacks who’ve come and gone since he signed with the Gophers.
Philip Nelson has transferred twice, landing at East Carolina, where he ranks 17th in the nation in passing yards (306.8 per game).
Rhoda’s good friend, Chris Streveler, transferred to South Dakota, where he threw touchdown passes last week in a 28-25 upset over Northern Iowa.
Dimonic McKinzy has landed at Division II Northeastern State in Oklahoma, where he passed for 279 yards last week. And Jacques Perra transferred to Division III St. Thomas. It’s been a rotating door behind Leidner, with Rhoda as the one constant.
“Conor’s heart has always been at Minnesota,” his father said. “He’s a guy who stays loyal. We are extremely proud of him for sticking with this and not being tempted to transfer.”
Last season, Rhoda was behind Leidner and true freshman Demry Croft. But the Gophers hired Jay Johnson as their new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach last winter. Johnson hadn’t recruited any of these quarterbacks, so everyone started from scratch.
With Leidner recovering from foot surgery, Rhoda outplayed Croft during spring practice, and this continued during August camp. Johnson named Rhoda the backup quarterback, citing his consistency and maturity.
From all accounts, Rhoda has the arm and temperament to effectively manage the Gophers offense. But does he run well enough to keep defenses honest on the read option?
“I think his running game is solid,” Johnson said. “I think sometimes people underestimate him, so I feel good about it. I think we can continue to do what we do. I don’t think there has to be drastic changes.”
At Cretin-Derham Hall, Rhoda took over as the starting quarterback midway through his junior year and led the Raiders to the Prep Bowl.
“He runs as well as he throws,” former Cretin coach Mike Scanlan said. “That’s the thing. He’s a very physical kid.”
Scanlan cited one play in the 2011 state semifinals. The Raiders faced fourth-and-4 in a key spot vs. Lakeville North. Rhoda ran the ball and gained 6 yards for the first down.
Rhoda has filled out his 6-3 frame, going from 190 pounds in high school, to about 215 now.
“He’s no longer an adolescent. He’s a physical product,” Scanlan said. “He was always a weight room guy. He put his time in, and obviously it’s paid off.”
The Gophers didn’t make Rhoda available for interviews this week, but people close to him say he’s relishing this chance.
“It’s exciting,” his father Jeff said. “I mean, you hate to see it happen because of an injury. Conor and Mitch are really close. They room together on the road. All these guys hate to see Mitch hurting like this.”
But if Rhoda delivers a road upset, that would certainly ease the pain.