The Gophers quarterback competition between Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner came to an abrupt end Thursday when Nelson announced he was transferring, in hopes of playing in a football system that “centers more around the pass game.”
Nelson, who was considered the crown jewel of Minnesota’s 2012 recruiting class, played seven games as a true freshman that fall while Leidner redshirted. But the two shared duties last season, and the competition seemed wide open after Nelson struggled in the team’s Texas Bowl loss to Syracuse.
Nelson met with Gophers coach Jerry Kill on Wednesday, and it was an amicable parting, according to Nelson’s father, Pat.
In a prepared statement, Philip Nelson said, “I have the utmost respect for Coach Kill and what he’s done for this program. I also want to reach out to all the great Minnesota fans that supported the football program and say thank you.
“For me, I am looking to play in a system that centers more around the pass game which utilizes my skill sets. I am excited to go out and meet with programs that match up with my talents.”
Nelson could not be reached for further comment.
The decision leaves Leidner as the clear favorite to run the offense this fall, though he will be pushed in spring practice by redshirt freshman Chris Streveler and incoming freshman Dimonic Roden- McKinzy.
Pat Nelson said Kill offered to use his contacts to help the quarterback find the best possible landing spot. Philip Nelson hopes to enroll somewhere quickly so he is eligible to play spring football.
Since he hasn’t used his redshirt season, he could transfer to another FBS program, sit out the mandatory one year under NCAA rules and still have two years of eligibility remaining. He wouldn’t have to sit out a year if he transfers down to an FCS program, as former Gophers quarterback Max Shortell did last season when he left for Jacksonville State.
Pat Nelson said his son is open to transferring anywhere outside of the Big Ten. If he stayed within the conference, he would lose a year of eligibility.
Explaining the transfer, Pat Nelson said it really came down to looking for a more pass-heavy offense.
“I hope there isn’t going to be a perception that this is about the quarterback competition,” Pat Nelson said. “The people who have the best relationship on the team are Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner.”
Kill released a statement, saying: “Philip is a terrific young man. I wish him all the best as he continues his education and football career elsewhere. I want to thank Philip for the contributions he made to our football program both on and off the field. And I will do anything I can to help him both now and in the future.”
Rivals.com rated Nelson as the nation’s 15th-best pro-style quarterback in the country coming out of Mankato West in 2012. But playing in a run-heavy offense with a depleted receiving corps, he completed only 50 percent of his passes, with 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions, in his two seasons at Minnesota.
Nelson helped the Gophers reel off their first four-game Big Ten winning streak since 1973 this past season, racking up 10 touchdowns (seven passing, three rushing) without a single turnover in victories over Northwestern, Nebraska, Indiana and Penn State.
But in the season’s final three games — losses to Wisconsin, Michigan State and Syracuse — Nelson completed only 15 of 48 passes (31 percent). Leidner came off the bench against Syracuse and tossed two fourth-quarter touchdown passes, ending the Gophers offense’s streak of 13 quarters without a touchdown.
For the bowl game, the Gophers went in with a plan to have Nelson play the first two series with Leidner taking the next two series. By game’s end, Nelson had played only three series and completed just two of seven passes, with some of the worst throws of his career.
Asked if frustration over that game plan spurred the transfer, Pat Nelson said, “This whole entire conversation started a long time ago. The bowl game had nothing to do with it.”