Philip Nelson held Paul Bunyan's Axe in his hands three years ago, during a recruiting visit to Wisconsin. On Saturday, the Gophers freshman quarterback apparently will have a chance to take it home with him.
Nelson will make his collegiate debut in Camp Randall Stadium as the Gophers' starting quarterback Saturday against the Badgers, barring a last-minute change of plans by Minnesota's coaches, a source close to the football program told the Star Tribune.
Nelson, who spent the week taking most of the snaps with the first-team offense, will replace Max Shortell, who has been inconsistent in three starts. MarQueis Gray, the source said, remains hobbled by a sprained left ankle and will play only at receiver, if at all.
Coach Jerry Kill has said for months that the Gophers preferred to keep Nelson on the sideline this season and let him learn the offense during a redshirt year.
But a two-game losing streak and the Gophers offense's inability to score consistently apparently have changed Kill's plans.
"I was questioned why we [recruited] so many quarterbacks. I said, well, we take them because you've got to have depth at that position. You never know what happens," Kill said late last month, when Nelson inherited the backup position because of Gray's injury. "Most people know you can't win championships without a great quarterback. There's a lot of pressure at that position, and it takes special people to handle it. ... [Nelson] is mentally tough. That's what we like about him."
It's the second consecutive season in which the Gophers have thrust a true freshman into the heat of Big Ten play in a huge, raucous stadium. Last year, Shortell made his first start at Michigan Stadium while Gray was out with a toe injury, a game the Gophers lost to the Wolverines 58-0.
"I wouldn't be afraid to put him out there if we needed him," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said two weeks ago. "We've thrown an awful lot at him, and he's handled it very well."
Nelson, a 19-year-old from Mankato West, has been touted as the quarterback of the future since he committed to the Gophers early in 2011, then led his prep team to an 11-1 record and a section championship, and won Mr. Football honors for himself.
Coincidentally, Nelson spent much of his childhood in Madison, where his father, Pat, once played for the Badgers, and he was recruited by Wisconsin -- and held the Axe in the Badgers locker room at Camp Randall Stadium -- before choosing Minnesota.
Shortell has completed 57 percent of his passes in relief of Gray this season, with six touchdowns and four interceptions. But the Gophers, who have lost eight consecutive games to Wisconsin, have not scored more than 17 points since Sept. 15, and Kill has made it clear he is willing to use freshmen in order to try to get the season back on track, rather than preserve their redshirt seasons.
Last week, running back Rodrick Williams and tight end Lincoln Plsek, both true freshmen, made their Gophers debuts.
Nelson will operate an injury-riddled Gophers offense, however. Left tackle Ed Olson, recovering from an ankle injury, did not make the trip to Madison, and his brother Tommy, the Gophers' starter at left guard, is not expected to play. Three receivers are also recovering from injuries.