The Gophers football coaches are serious when they talk about how much they like their top two quarterbacks — so serious that Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner can both expect to see playing time this year.
It won’t be a series-by-series rotation, but if Nelson keeps the starting job, the Gophers are preparing to sprinkle in Leidner for a handful of snaps each game.
“Everybody gets tired,” Nelson said Friday, after the team’s first practice. “If you’re making some big runs, and you can hardly breathe with the mouth guard in the mouth, it would be great to have somebody come relieve you a little bit.”
Gophers coach Jerry Kill has compared the strategy to the one his staff used in 2010 at Northern Illinois with starting quarterback Chandler Harnish and backup Jordan Lynch. Even though Harnish handled most snaps, Lynch played eight games as a freshman.
Lynch attempted only six passes that season, but he rushed 31 times for 362 yards.
Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, who held the same job at Northern Illinois, said the Huskies used Lynch in the way other teams might use a Wildcat package, with snaps going directly to a running back.
“We just happened to have a kid [Lynch] who was the second- or third-best runner on our team behind our tailback and quarterback,” Limegrover said. “So it was easy to put him in there. You didn’t have to change things, and he could throw the football. We feel like we could do that here as well.”
Limegrover said this not only helps keep the starting quarterback healthy, by saving a few hits, but it also gives the backup some experience. It worked well for Lynch, who took over for Harnish last fall and finished seventh in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
The Gophers expect Leidner to keep pushing Nelson for the starting job, but he has the benefit of experience after playing seven games as a freshman last year while Leidner redshirted.
“I’m willing to help the team however I can, so if they’re willing to play a second quarterback, that would be great,” Leidner said.
And he’s not conceding the starting job just yet, adding, “Everybody wants that No. 1 spot.”
On Day 1, Nelson and Leidner both showed signs of rust, even though they’d been throwing in 7-on-7 drills all summer. In one sequence, Nelson threw an interception to linebacker Jephte Matilus, a few minutes before cornerback Derrick Wells turned a Leidner pass into a pick-six.
Kill didn’t seem too upset, but he wasn’t giving any first-day passes, either.
“You evaluate that position every day,” he said. “I mean, that’s part of life. They’re like me. We get evaluated every day, and you have to have tough skin.”
Nelson might be the presumed starter, but he isn’t taking it for granted.
“Nobody’s position is guaranteed,” he said. “That’s the way Coach Kill runs his program, and that’s why we are getting better and better because nobody’s position is safe. Everybody has to work for their spot, and Coach Kill’s going to play the best player, period.”
• Kill said two newcomers who caught his eye were freshman wide receiver Eric Carter and linebacker De’Vondre Campbell, a junior-college transfer. The coach said he liked how Carter moved around, and he said Campbell might have stood out simply because he’s so tall (6-5) for a linebacker.
• As expected, redshirt freshman offensive lineman Jonah Pirsig was limited to individual drills as he finishes recovering from knee surgery.
• Senior offensive tackle Ed Olson was back at full speed after missing spring practice because of an ankle injury. Olson worked with the second team offensive line, but he’s expected to rejoin the starting unit as camp progresses.
• Kill on 6-9, 258-pound freshman tight end Drew Wozniak: “He’s a big old kid, isn’t he? I told him, ‘When you catch that ball, get those pads down; there’s a lot to hit there.’ And he’s athletic. That’s the great thing.”
• Among the players who didn’t make the 105-man camp roster were tight end Moses Alipate, quarterback Dexter Foreman and injured center Brian Bobek. They can be added once fall semester starts.