Through spring practice in April and training camp the past 2½ weeks, Demry Croft and Conor Rhoda have been competing to be the Gophers’ starting quarterback, with little separation in quality of play between the two.
Coach P.J. Fleck kept waiting for one to pull clearly ahead — and stay ahead — of the other to be the starting QB on his first Minnesota team.
That didn’t happen, so on Thursday, Fleck announced that Croft and Rhoda would be co-starters.
“We’re gonna play ’em both. That’s my decision,” Fleck said after the team’s final open practice of training camp. “In terms of a starter, they’re both the starter.”
Fleck didn’t say which QB actually will take the first snap under center for the Aug. 31 season opener against Buffalo at TCF Bank Stadium, but he offered a detailed explanation of reasoning to pick two instead of one.
First and foremost, neither Rhoda, a fifth-year senior, nor Croft, a sophomore who redshirted last year, has extensive game experience.
“If I was to tell you that I knew exactly how those quarterbacks are going to play in a game, that’s a guess,” said Fleck, who on Tuesday hinted his decision might not come down to one QB.
Both quarterbacks have attempted 17 passes in their Gophers careers. Rhoda completed seven of 15 passes in his lone start at Maryland last fall for 82 yards and a touchdown — the Gophers won 31-10 — and he attempted two other throws during brief stints in four games in 2014 and 2016. Croft saw action in three games in 2015 as a true freshman, completing seven of his 17 passes for 34 yards.
Neither has seized the job with superior play over the other in camp, and that pushed Fleck toward a two-QB system, even though he said earlier in training camp that he would prefer that one would win the job.
“Every time I think I see one nudging the other out, the other one closed the gap and passed him.” Fleck said. “And they’ve continued to do that. That tells me this late in training camp that both of ’em deserve to play.”
Fleck also declared, “This is not a controversy.”
The coach delivered the news to both QBs at the same time Thursday, and they were thrilled.
“It was awesome news,” said Rhoda, a Cretin-Derham Hall product from Eagan, “and it gives us the best chance to win for the team.”
Added Croft, who played at Boylan High School in Rockford, Ill.: “I had a pretty big smile on my face, and so did Conor.”
The rigors of the schedule and the need to develop a backup also swayed Fleck toward picking two instead of one. “If we think we can go through the Big Ten and not need two quarterbacks at some point, I think we’re crazy to think that,” he said. “We’re gonna need ’em.”
Fleck, who used a two-QB system in two of his four seasons as Western Michigan’s coach, wasn’t sure yet about the breakdown in snaps between Croft and Rhoda but said both will run the same system. He also said he felt there is plenty of time before both the opener against Buffalo and the Sept. 9 game at Oregon State for both QBs to get sufficient practice reps to continue improving.
“It’s a compliment to them that they’ve put me in a position [of using two QBs] that I haven’t done in a while,” Fleck said.
Rhoda and Croft are used to competing for a job. They vied for the backup spot to Mitch Leidner last year, with Rhoda winning it and Croft redshirting.
“This isn’t the first time we’ve gone through this,” Rhoda said. “… It’s really a relationship that we’re comfortable with. We bring out the best in each other.”
• Rey Estes, a true freshman who switched from quarterback to cornerback in the first week of training camp, has supplied depth to a secondary that has been without Antoine Winfield Jr. and Antonio Shenault in practice because of injuries. Fleck said Estes will play and has an outside shot at starting. “Right now, it’s all hands on deck,” the coach said.
• Fleck said Winfield continues to improve after suffering a hamstring injury last week but won’t be rushed back.