Gophers football players sit in assigned seats matching their uniform numbers for team meetings. When the squad reconvenes from winter break Monday, there will be a notable void in the front row: seat No. 9.
That’s where quarterback Philip Nelson sat the past two years, and where he was expected to sit through 2015 — until Thursday, when he suddenly announced he was transferring.
In seat No. 7 will be Mitch Leidner, who now seems the clear choice to start at quarterback. The question now becomes if three younger players — No. 5 Chris Streveler, No. 15 Connor Rhoda and No. 2 Dimonic Roden-McKinzy — can push Leidner this spring.
Coach Jerry Kill has been careful not to say much publicly about the quarterback battle so far this offseason, but here’s a closer look at his post-Nelson options:
Year/height/weight: Redshirt sophomore; 6-4; 230 pounds
Stats: He completed 43 of 78 passes (55.1 percent) for 619 yards last season, with three touchdowns and one interception. He also rushed for 498 yards and seven touchdowns.
Background: Leidner enrolled in January 2012, just like Nelson, but arrived with far less hype. Leidner was a pocket passer who seldom ran at Lakeville South, but he transformed into a dual-threat option on the scout team.
After redshirting in 2012, Leidner pushed Nelson throughout spring practice last year. When Nelson injured a hamstring in September, Leidner got his chance and wound up starting four games. Leidner was inconsistent as a passer, much like Nelson, but showed his potential when he nearly rallied the Gophers to a bowl game victory with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes against Syracuse.
Best hope: Leidner builds off this experience, takes over as the clear leader of the offense, hones his passing and stays healthy despite a punishing running style.
Year/height/weight: Redshirt freshman; 6-2; 209 pounds
Stats: As a senior at Marian (Ill.) Central Catholic, he completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 2,662 yards with 26 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also rushed for 1,276 yards with 22 touchdowns.
Background: Streveler has the speed, but he might not have the arm strength to be an effective Big Ten quarterback. He is such a good athlete, there was talk of moving him to receiver last summer. The accuracy and strong decision making that made him a good high school quarterback started showing during fall camp. Then he suffered a hand injury that required surgery. So it’ll be interesting to see how well he’s throwing the ball in spring practice.
Best hope: Streveler makes the same jump that Leidner made after his redshirt season, giving the Gophers someone they can count on immediately if needed.
Year/height/weight: True freshman; 6-0; 213 pounds
Stats: As a senior at Wyandotte (Kan.) High School, he completed 53 percent of his passes for 2,560 yards, with 26 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also rushed for 528 yards and eight touchdowns.
Background: Roden-McKinzy had offers from Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas, but he stuck with the Gophers after giving a verbal commitment in April. He graduated from high school early, so he could enroll in January and take part in spring practice, just as Nelson, Leidner and Streveler did. Roden-McKinzy will be the shortest quarterback on the roster, but there’s no questioning his arm strength. He has thrown 70-yard passes in practice, but he will need to improve his accuracy to succeed in the Big Ten. He’s a pass-first quarterback with the quickness to make big plays with his feet when needed.
Best hope: Leidner and Streveler are healthy and effective this fall, enabling Roden-McKinzy to redshirt. Once he learns the offense, he will be a very intriguing option.
Year/height/weight: Redshirt freshman; 6-2; 180 pounds
Stats: He passed for 1,400 yards and 19 touchdowns, and rushed for 550 yards and three touchdowns in nine games as a senior at Cretin-Derham Hall.
Background: As a walk-on last year, Rhoda entered camp as the No. 5 quarterback. He climbed the ladder when Donovahn Jones converted to wide receiver, and when Streveler got injured, Rhoda wound up running the scout team offense.
Best hope: Rhoda keeps making strides, becoming a viable No. 3 quarterback option, while McKinzy redshirts.
Overall, there’s enough talent here for the Gophers to overcome Nelson’s departure. He had his struggles, completing just 50 percent of his passes in two seasons. There will be more growing pains with Leidner and Co., but there’s a lot of upside with this group, too.