MINNEAPOLIS — When Minnesota took Philip Nelson's redshirt off at midseason, Gophers fans howled about the potential waste of a year of eligibility for a well-regarded recruit.
The upside to his earlier-than-expected experience is the extra confidence he can take into his sophomore year. Despite being the only quarterback on the roster who has taken a college snap, though, Nelson won't be without competition when fall practice begins this weekend.
Given the zone read running plays the Gophers frequently use, the quarterback is prone to taking plenty of hits in this offense. So coach Jerry Kill's wish is to keep his starter fresh.
"Do I want to play flipping quarterbacks and all that? No. Is there a place and time? ... Yes, according to what's happening in that particular game plan," Kill said.
In 2010, Kill's final season at Northern Illinois, Chandler Harnish was the starter, but freshman Jordan Lynch took some turns and finished with 362 yards and three touchdowns rushing plus a handful of passes. Lynch led the Huskies to the Orange Bowl last season and a 12-2 record while becoming the first player in the history of the NCAA's top tier to pass for more than 3,000 yards and rush for more than 1,500 yards in one season.
"If there's a deal where you can sprinkle somebody in there, that helps you later on down the road and I think that's why Jordan has had so much success down at Northern Illinois," Kill said.
Freshman Mitch Leidner, who redshirted last year, is behind Nelson on the depth chart in light of MarQueis Gray's graduation and Max Shortell's decision to transfer. Freshmen Chris Streveler and Donovahn Jones will be evaluated closely in camp, too. Kill raved about Leidner's strong finish in the spring game.
"Once he settled down, he went toe to toe and we had a heck of a ballgame there. So I think that Mitch is like a lot of our whole team: It's going to be young and a little bit inexperienced, but sometimes that's good. They don't know any better. So you just don't tell them anything but, 'Go play,'" Kill said.
This is clearly Nelson's job to lose, but he has a long way to go. Nelson completed only 49.3 percent of his passes, for eight touchdowns and eight interceptions in seven games. After a summer's worth of workouts, he said he's got a stronger grasp of the college game.
"You've got to be able to be accurate and make the right decisions and just be able to utilize the players around me and let them make some big plays. Not every play needs to be a 50-yard bomb. You can dump one down and let some of the athletes take over," Nelson said.
He said he's also all right with the possibility of one of the freshman taking snaps from time to time.
"I want to be healthy, and do whatever we can to win," Nelson said, adding: "I think we're going to stop making the quarterback run 15-plus times a game. But at the same time, if that's what it may be to win, that's what you've got to do."
Junior wide receiver Isaac Fruechte noted Nelson's dedication.
"He was telling me the other day he watched the entire season from last year, even games he didn't play in, just to try and watch and learn and get better, and that's something that I've tried to do better too because he's been an example for me and other guys," Fruechte said.
The job would certainly be made easier by the emergence of a reliably productive wide receiver or two.
A.J. Barker, who angrily quit the team via a 4,100-word e-mail to Kill he posted on his personal blog, led the team with 30 catches for 577 yards and seven touchdowns. Despite playing in only eight games, Barker's totals roughly doubled the next-closest player in those categories. Gray, who wound up at wide receiver, is gone and so is speedster Devin Crawford-Tufts, who is focusing on his track and field career.
Fruechte and senior Derrick Engel are the leading returning players.
Two of last year's most touted freshman are certainly in the mix, too, but Andre McDonald was recently reinstated to the roster after leaving school in the spring. Jamel Harbison is coming off major knee surgery after tearing an anterior cruciate ligament in the season opener. Sophomore K.J. Maye, who has also been used as a running back and kickoff returner, is another candidate. Freshman Drew Wolitarsky, who was California's all-time preps leader in career receptions (281) and yards receiving (5,148) at Canyon County High School north of Los Angeles, will have plenty of opportunities to earn his way onto the field.
Streveler and Jones, two other anchors of the 2013 recruiting class, will practice at wide receiver as well as quarterback. They'll have a chance to follow Gray's career path, which began at wide receiver and shifted to quarterback when Adam Weber was gone.