As offensive coordinator for the Browns last season, Norv Turner saw enough of MarQueis Gray to recommend that the Vikings pick him up after the former Gophers quarterback was waived Saturday.
Making the Cleveland roster last year as an undrafted free agent, Gray played tight end and had six carries for 43 yards and two receptions for 9 yards in 12 games. He also had two special-teams tackles.
“Well, everyone says I wanted to bring him here, but our scouts had great grades on him,” said Turner, now the Vikings offensive coordinator. “He became available, really didn’t fit what they were trying to do in Cleveland, and we saw him as a young, aspiring player who we project as a guy that can be a tight end that has a lot of strengths. He can run, catch — he can run with the football, he can throw the football. He’s a multitalented athlete.”
The Browns picked up Gray after San Francisco cut him following last year’s preseason. Turner said that it took some time, but eventually Gray worked his way into the lineup.
“He played quite a bit. We used him the last five or six games,” he said. “We had some injuries at tight end and he played quite a bit. We used him at quarterback. We had a Wildcat package with him, so we’ll be able to do that here. There’s a multitude of things we can do with him.”
Asked why Gray couldn’t make the Browns roster this year, Turner, who departed for the Vikings staff this year after Rob Chudzinski was fired as Cleveland coach following only one season, said: “They’re just kind of going in a different direction. I don’t know that it’s a surprise. He’s a young player, and he probably fits what we do a little better than what they’re doing.”
Turner described how he sees the Vikings using the 6-4, 220-pound Gray.
“We’re going to get him up to speed, get him to where he knows everything and then just mix him in as soon as he gets ready,” Turner said. “But like I said, he can run, he can catch, he got better in pass protection, so he’s a guy that should be able to contribute.”
Excited for Week 1
Turner said that while he was pleased with the Vikings’ 4-0 preseason, he knows it is all merely prelude to their season-opening matchup with the Rams in St. Louis.
“The whole thing changes when the regular season starts,” he said. “You’re playing the entire game against their 1s [first-teamers], your 1s the entire game, people game-plan a lot harder against you. But I like what our guys have done, and I still believe we have a talented young group that is going to keep getting better. I expect us to be a lot better in December than we are now. But I think we’re ready to play.”
While Adrian Peterson didn’t play a single snap in the preseason, Turner believes that shouldn’t affect his ability to perform right away.
“Adrian has had great practices,” he said of the 2012 NFL MVP. “Our guys have been trying to strip the ball from him, grabbing him, banging him a little bit, he’s fresh, excited, and I can’t wait to see him go.”
Turner, who used four starting quarterbacks last season with Cleveland, said he was happy the Vikings were able to keep Christian Ponder on the 53-man roster and liked what he saw out of the former starter in the preseason finale at Tennessee.
“He played really good,” Turner said. “I thought he played the way I expect him to and the way he is capable of playing. He was accurate, he was quick with the ball, he made good decisions. It was good for him and good for all of us. This league, it’s a long year, and all you have to do is look at Green Bay last year, they lost [Aaron] Rodgers for seven weeks and it took a toll on their season and they struggled to get done what they wanted to do when Rodgers wasn’t in there. Having three quarterbacks is a big bonus to me.”
Turner said even though Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is injured again, the Vikings will have a real test in Week 1.
“They’re good,” he said. “They were second in the league in sacks by their defensive linemen. Their front four is outstanding. They’re fast, faster down there on the turf. We have to go in and handle a hostile environment. We have to be smart. The best thing we did in preseason was we protected the ball. We only had one turnover. We’ve got to take care of the ball, protect the quarterback and we have to go play four full quarters.”
MTSU likes chances
Middle Tennessee State coach Rick Stockstill was asked this week about facing the Gophers and a Big Ten opponent.
“I think we’re competitive against everybody,” said Stockstill, whose Blue Raiders opened the season with a 61-7 victory over FCS team Savannah State. “Sure, we’ve had some mismatches against some schools that we’ve played. I don’t look at it as competitive against the Big Ten or the ACC. We’ve had chances to win some games against the Big Ten, SEC and ACC. We’ve beaten them sometimes and we haven’t the others. We are getting better as a program. We are getting better as a team. We are not in awe. We are not going to be in awe in going up there to Minnesota. We’ll approach it just like we do any game.”
The Gophers played their opener at Middle Tennessee State in 2010, winning 24-17 in what was the final victory for coach Tim Brewster before he was fired when a six-game losing streak followed.
• One reason the Gophers had one of their biggest student turnouts for their opener last Thursday was that coach Jerry Kill spoke to freshmen the day before, encouraging them to come to the game free of charge with hope they would buy season tickets.
• Twins pitcher Phil Hughes, who signed a three-year contract for $24 million, can earn up to an additional $1 million for innings pitched. He already has earned a $250,000 bonus for pitching 180 innings, gets another $250,000 for pitching 195 innings and gets $500,000 for reaching 210. Hughes has never pitched more than 200 innings in a season. At 15-9, he still has a chance to become the Twins’ first 20-game winner since Johan Santana in 2004. Asked about Hughes’ success after struggling in New York, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said: “Well, he did win with the Yankees. He had one bad year out there [in 2013], but he actually put together a really good year the year before that. It just comes back to he’s back to the basics now.”
• Timberwolves point guard Ricky Rubio isn’t being asked to shoot much for Spain at the FIBA World Cup, but he is playing great all-around basketball. He is averaging 5.8 assists, 2.5 steals, 5.0 rebounds and 3.8 points per game through four games with Spain, which is 4-0 in the tournament and looks like the lone challenger to the United States squad.