The Gophers open the season in less than two weeks, and the identity of their starting quarterback remains a mystery. Sort of.
P.J. Fleck elected to announce Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda as co-starters, whatever that means, since only one of them can play at a time, unless Fleck is thinking two time zones outside the box.
Fleck didn’t disclose which one will actually start against Buffalo on Aug. 31. Or how his rotation will look in terms of playing time.
“This is not a controversy,” Fleck said.
It’s not ideal, either. Quarterback platoons often become clunky and disruptive, a guessing game about who plays when and how much and the right time to make a switch.
Fleck is correct that his arrangement isn’t a controversy because neither quarterback has proved himself yet. So neither has staked a claim as the undisputed winner. Controversy will flare up only if one clearly outperforms the other in games but the coaching staff sticks with a rotation.
Fleck initially didn’t sound too keen on this plan when asked at the Big Ten media days in July if he would consider a platoon.
“I’m not a big two-quarterback-system guy,” he said. “I believe in [picking] a guy and let’s go. But if we have to and we feel that’s the best formula, that nobody has taken the job, then we will. But I would like to stay away from that for leadership purposes.”
That neither quarterback put a stranglehold on the job shouldn’t be cast as a positive because this clearly was not Fleck’s preference. And after enduring maddening QB play in recent years, the Gophers enter this season with the least experienced quarterbacks of any Power Five team in terms of appearances and starts, according to the school.
That’s a nice way of suggesting that fans probably should brace themselves for more struggles.
Even knowing the competition remained neck-and-neck throughout camp, my preference would have been for Fleck to pick one quarterback and roll with him. If that guy struggled and proved incapable of handling the job, give the other guy a shot.
The cliché about having two quarterbacks and what that means isn’t entirely true. A platoon can be successful if the quarterbacks are extremely skilled and surrounded by supreme talent. But Fleck’s dilemma doesn’t fall anywhere in the same universe as Urban Meyer juggling Cardale Jones and J.T. Barrett.
Former Gophers coach Jerry Kill tried quarterback rotations and it became a painful exercise. Philip Nelson looked so uptight over his quarterback timeshare with Mitch Leidner that he threw the ball wildly in a bowl game and then asked for his scholarship release.
Playing quarterback is difficult enough without them looking over their shoulder, or wondering if one mistake will cause a trip to the bench. Rotating quarterbacks can affect the timing of the entire offense.
Fleck inherited this problem. The biggest failure of the Kill-Tracy Claeys tenure was their inability to recruit and develop a legitimate Big Ten quarterback. They thought Nelson would become a star, but that vision never materialized.
This isn’t a new issue for the program. The Gophers haven’t had a quarterback selected in the NFL draft since Craig Curry in 1972. How many of their previous quarterbacks would even be categorized as above-average? Not many.
Fixing that problem should be high on Fleck’s priority list. He has a quarterback committed in his 2018 class (Brennan Armstrong from Ohio) and presumably will continue to address that position every recruiting cycle.
Of course, that doesn’t help him this season. Rhoda and Croft alternated between good moments and bad in camp. I’ve attended two open practices. I left the first day convinced Croft would win the job. I left the second day convinced Rhoda was the starter.
Fleck obviously wasn’t swayed enough to declare an outright winner.
In all likelihood, the situation will resolve itself during early-season games. It won’t be surprising if one of the quarterbacks plays more effectively or the offense responds better. Or perhaps an injury occurs.
Picking one QB before the opener would have been preferable because it’s less ambiguous. But Fleck probably knew all along that he will need both quarterbacks at some point.
Chip Scoggins firstname.lastname@example.org