The Gophers want quarterback Philip Nelson to run hard when he leaves the pocket, but they also want him to be smart. On the play that led to a minor shoulder injury last Saturday, he thought he did both.
It was third-and-2 near midfield. The Gophers led New Mexico State 30-14 in the third quarter. The play call was a quarterback draw.
Nelson made the proper hesitation behind the line, darted through a hole and lunged forward for 3 yards. But the first down came at a price, as he got hit between his shoulder pads, leaving his throwing arm limp.
The sophomore remained in the game and continued adding to a surprising trend. Two weeks into the season, he leads all Big Ten quarterbacks with 205 rushing yards. But the hits are adding up, too.
“I’ve had some people tell me that every hit you take, it takes a little off your career,” Nelson said Tuesday. “But I think that particular [play], it was third-and-2, so whatever it takes to get that first down.”
The Gophers run a version of the option called the zone read, which gives the quarterback the choice of handing off the ball or keeping it. Their quarterbacks have to be ready for contact, and Nelson doesn’t shy away from it.
“As quarterbacks coach [Jim Zebrowski] tells us, we always want to be fighting for the extra yard, we want to play hard,” Nelson said. “To be honest with you, that’s kind of the way I’ve always played actually.”
Still, Nelson acknowledged there are times when it might be wiser to avoid a hit. Even after dinging his shoulder, for example, he had runs of 20 and 28 yards, where he was well past the first-down marker and still trying to punish the defensive backs.
“You’ve got to be smart,” coach Jerry Kill said. “We coach him to do that. It’s no different than [Colin] Kaepernick with the 49ers, or anybody else who’s doing that zone-read option football.”
Kill stressed that the Gophers have taken what opposing defenses have given them. The defensive ends have been crashing on their running backs, so Nelson has been keeping the ball on those option plays, rushing 12 times against UNLV and 15 times last week.
The Gophers also could turn to backup Mitch Leidner more in coming weeks to take some wear and tear off Nelson. Leidner played toward the end of both games, rushing five times for 37 yards. Kill pointed to the success his coaching staff had at Northern Illinois in 2010, spelling starting quarterback Chandler Harnish with then-backup Jordan Lynch.
“That’s something we could do in the future with Mitch, as he progresses in what he’s doing,” Kill said. “He’s done a nice job when he’s gone in.”
Nelson said his primary focus now is on shoring up the team’s lackluster passing game. As good as he has looked running the ball, he ranks toward the bottom of the Big Ten with a 47.4 completion percentage and a 95.5 passer efficiency.
“The biggest thing is we’ve got to catch the ball,” Kill said. “Phil’s been pretty consistent, but we’ve got to cut down on our drops. We’ve got people capable of doing that, so I think we’ll see much improvement in that down the line.”
Jamel Harbison, a redshirt freshman, sat out the first two games because of a disciplinary issue, but Kill said he will play Saturday, which should give the receiving corps a boost.
Nelson targeted senior wide receiver Derrick Engel six times against UNLV without a single completion, even though some of those passes were catchable. But those two connected twice at New Mexico State, including a 48-yard post pattern in the first quarter.
“I didn’t have the greatest first game, but I responded and at least had a nice catch against New Mexico State,” Engel said. “We know we’ve got to open up the field for the running backs, but it’s kind of a week-by-week thing.”
Look for the Gophers to try opening things up more on Saturday against Western Illinois. But if the Leathernecks force his hand, Nelson won’t be afraid to keep the ball and run.