When Jerry Kill became Gophers football coach in December 2010, he inherited MarQueis Gray as his starting quarterback. He saw Gray on one of his first visits to the football facility, did a double-take, and asked, “Do all of our players look like you?”
Gray possessed the speed of a running back, the size of a tight end and the arm of a tight end, the position he’s playing for the Buffalo Bills.
Kill saw Gray and knew he had a talented athlete to experiment with at quarterback. Kill has been trying to turn athletes into passers ever since.
Gray was a talented runner and inefficient passer. He shared time with Max Shortell, a more classic-looking pocket passer who didn’t pass much more efficiently than Gray, and Shortell transferred to Jacksonville State, one of the better college football programs in Jacksonville, Ala.
Kill landed a coveted recruit, Mankato West’s Philip Nelson, and he started the final seven games of his freshman season in 2012. Nelson completed only 49.3 percent of his passes that year, and 50.5 the next, as Mitch Leidner began sharing the job.
Leidner was a prolific passer at Lakeville South. As a Gopher, he often has conformed to the stereotype that has come to define Kill’s offenses at Minnesota: Leidner is a powerful runner and an inconsistent passer.
Leidner completed 55.1 percent of his passes in 2013. He completed 51.5 percent last year, despite the presence of two NFL-caliber skill-position talents in running back David Cobb and tight end Maxx Williams. If Leidner had hit one more open receiver downfield against Ohio State in a 31-24 loss, the Gophers might have upset the eventual national champions.
The other quarterback who played last year, Chris Streveler, is another accomplished runner and athlete who now is dabbling at other positions.
Kill is entering his fifth season at Minnesota. Last year, his Gophers went 5-3 in the Big Ten for their first winning conference record since 2003. Kill’s arrow is pointed up, but it was shot from the bottom of a deep well.
Kill and his staff have fielded remarkably strong and well-coached defensive backfields. They have produced excellent linebackers and solid defensive lines. They have paid homage to former coach Glen Mason’s tradition of finding underappreciated offensive linemen, tight ends and running backs, and proving they can run the ball against even the most physical opponents.
Kill takes pride in his staff’s cohesiveness and loyalty, and in the work of his strength trainer, Eric Klein. Kill has improved the roster and the program’s expectations to the point where even more pressure is being placed on his quarterbacks and receivers to make the three plays a game that make the difference between beating the best teams on the schedule and losing in average bowl games.
Kill has not had a quarterback at Minnesota — inherited or recruited — complete 58 percent of his passes in a season.
Gophers receivers of late have been similar to the quarterbacks — talented, intriguing and not as productive as hoped.
Kill has built the proverbial strong foundation at Minnesota. He has energized the state. He has made fall Saturdays a reason to hope, rather than a reason to cringe.
Atop that strong foundation is a passing game that couldn’t be any more ’70s if it featured earth tones, shag carpeting, lava lamps and a new video game called Pong.
Leidner is a powerful runner. His teammates call him a leader.
“I like to characterize last year as his freshman year, because it was his first year taking over the quarterback position and honoring that role,” said cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun. “Last year was when he made his big mistakes — and had his big triumphs. I expect him to come back this year and make smart decisions and not turn the ball over so much.”
Leadership is nice. Accuracy is better. Leidner’s 51.5 completion percentage was last among Big Ten starters with at least 200 attempts last year.
Kill has built a physically tough team. The next step in the program’s development is dependent on the Gophers’ adoption of that new trend in football, the reliably completed forward pass.