Kirk Ciarrocca paused for a moment during training camp, listening to the Gophers’ tortured history at the most important position in sports. The man that coach P.J. Fleck has described as a “quarterback whisperer” knew most of the story by heart.
The Gophers haven’t had an All-America QB since Sandy Stephens in 1961. Decades passed between their last three All-Big Ten QB selections — Tony Dungy (1976), Rickey Foggie (1987) and Adam Weber (2008). They haven’t had a quarterback picked in the NFL draft since Craig Curry in 1972.
Doesn’t that checklist make recruiting quarterbacks difficult, leaving a hard cycle to change?
“I look at it the other way,” said Ciarrocca, the team’s raspy-voiced offensive coordinator. “We talk openly about the quarterback history here, and what an unbelievable opportunity it is to be the one who leads us to a Rose Bowl. They’ll be legendary. They’ll be building statues of them.”
That was part of Fleck and Ciarrocca’s pitch to Zack Annexstad last year, when they recruited him from the IMG Academy in Florida.
Annexstad had scholarship offers from Pittsburgh and Illinois but walked on at Minnesota, where he edged out redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan for the starting job.
If Annexstad, Morgan or one of the current high school seniors who’ve committed to the Gophers — Eden Prairie’s Cole Kramer or Texas native Jacob Clark — blossoms into an all-conference player, it won’t be the first time for Ciarrocca.
At Delaware, he developed Joe Flacco into a future Super Bowl MVP, and quietly molded Andy Hall into a 2004 sixth-round pick by Philadelphia. At Rutgers, Ciarrocca coached Tom Savage, an eventual 2014 fourth-round pick by Houston. At Western Michigan, Ciarrocca turned a little-known recruit, Zach Terrell, into a three-time All-Mid-American Conference selection who had 33 touchdown passes and four interceptions as a senior.
“The biggest thing I’ve learned is elite quarterbacks come in all kinds of shapes, sizes, packages and skill sets,” Ciarrocca said. “Because those guys were all great young men, but they couldn’t have been more different.”
‘Kind of ridiculous’
Gophers fans aren’t picky. They are so starved for an upper-echelon quarterback, they’d be thrilled to have one, any style.
“Seriously, you can’t make it up: This is a Big Ten school, I’m 45 years old, and they haven’t had an NFL quarterback drafted in my lifetime,” said Zach Johnson, owner and publisher of the recruiting website GopherIllustrated.com. “It’s almost like you’d have to try not to recruit one as bad as Minnesota has been.”
In 1968, Curry was one of the top quarterback recruits in the country. A Coral Gables, Fla., native, he committed to Miami, right in his hometown, but reconsidered after receiving death threats over his black skin.
“I went to visit Minnesota,” Curry said. “They had won the Big Ten title in ’67, and I kind of felt like I was surrounded by winners. Sandy Stephens had taken them to the Rose Bowl [in 1961 and 1962]. I thought it was a place where I could play quarterback, where I wouldn’t be automatically switched [to another position].”
The Gophers went just 11-18-2 in Curry’s three seasons at QB, but he was a second-team All-Big Ten selection as a senior, and Miami made him an eighth-round pick. But that 1972 Dolphins squad had Bob Griese and Earl Morrall. They cut Curry in training camp and finished 17-0.
After Curry, the Gophers soon had another standout black quarterback in Dungy, who went undrafted but signed with Pittsburgh as a safety.
Curry returned to Minnesota, finished his degree and eventually became the athletic director at Arkansas Pine-Bluff. Now 68, he lives in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he has been recovering from a stroke suffered last fall.
Asked about the Gophers’ NFL quarterback drought, Curry said: “It’s kind of ridiculous. If someone would have told me back then, I would have shaken my head and said, ‘How could that be with all their history and tradition?’ ”
Good, very good — but not great
The Gophers have had more home stadiums than All-Big Ten quarterbacks (Foggie and Weber) in the past 40 years. For comparison, Iowa and Illinois have had seven, while Purdue, Northwestern and Indiana have had five apiece.
Darrell Thompson, the Gophers’ radio analyst and all-time leading rusher, said Minnesota’s best quarterback since he started following the program is still Foggie, a teammate of his for two years. A South Carolina native recruited by Lou Holtz, Foggie thrived in the Gophers’ option offense from 1984-87.
“It was almost like a perfect storm,” Foggie said. “I got really lucky. My skill set was put into an offensive system that fit me to a ‘T’. Coach Holtz just told me to go out there, be myself and make some plays.”
Bypassed in the 1988 NFL draft, the 6-2 Foggie played in the Canadian Football League and Arena Football League before becoming a coach.
“Rickey would have been great in the RPO [run-pass option] offense that is very, very popular in the NFL today,” Thompson said. “He could throw the post route. He could throw the out route. And he could run and put pressure on the defense.”
Since Foggie, the Gophers have had some solid if unspectacular quarterbacks. Glen Mason coached Bryan Cupito and Asad Abdul-Khaliq, who rank first and second, respectively, among the Gophers’ all-time leaders in touchdown-to-interception ratio. Mason also recruited Weber and redshirted him in 2006 before getting fired that winter.
Weber started every game the next four years under Tim Brewster. As a sophomore in 2008, the Mounds View grad ranked among the nation’s completion percentage leaders as the Gophers started 7-1. But the team’s play deteriorated from there, with Weber unable to keep Brewster’s sinking program afloat.
“Not to cry in my milk, but when we signed Adam Weber, there was no doubt in my mind we had finally gotten the quarterback that would take our offense to the next level,” Mason said. “When you think about our power running game, if you would have thrown the ability to run effective option, we really could have been something.”
Fans also had high hopes for MarQueis Gray, a four-star 2008 recruit for Brewster from Indianapolis. But injuries and ineffective passing kept him from becoming a standout quarterback, though he is now entering his sixth season as an NFL tight end.
Former coach Jerry Kill signed Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner in the same 2012 recruiting class. Nelson arrived with more hype, but Leidner took over and went 24-17 as a starter. Leidner had a strong junior season, prompting ESPN’s Todd McShay to project him as a first-round pick in his “Way-Too-Early 2017 Mock Draft.” But Leidner threw more interceptions (12) than touchdowns (eight) as a senior before getting passed over in the draft.
“The media beat him up the whole time,” Kill said, “and he’s the [program’s third] all-time leading passer.”
Uncertain present and future
If it’s any comfort for Gophers fans, Florida has struggled finding a top-tier quarterback ever since Tim Tebow graduated, even though the Gators play in a recruiting hotbed. What’s worse, Florida had two eventual stars slip right through its grasp, with Paxton Lynch landing at Memphis and Lamar Jackson at Louisville.
One who got away for Minnesota is Jordan Ta’amu, now the starting QB for Ole Miss.
In 2016, Leidner’s senior year, the Gophers courted Ta’amu when he played junior college ball at the New Mexico Military Institute.
But then-coach Tracy Claeys wanted someone speedier than Ta’amu, and the Gophers missed a chance to grab him before Ole Miss did. As a junior last season, Ta’amu started five games for the Rebels and completed 66.5 percent of his passes, earning him a spot on this year’s Johnny Unitas Golden Arm watch list.
Meanwhile, the Gophers entered last season with Conor Rhoda, a former walk-on, and untested Demry Croft as their top two QB options. Croft and the Gophers couldn’t manage a single touchdown pass in the season’s final five games, or a single point in the last two.
Fleck also had a mutual parting with Brennan Armstrong, a quarterback recruit from Ohio who landed at Virginia. The Gophers then signed Vic Viramontes, a touted QB from Riverside (Calif.) City College.
The preseason magazines went to press, hyping Viramontes as a Big Ten player to watch this season. But he was already headed back to Riverside CC, this time as a linebacker, after being thoroughly outplayed by Morgan and Annexstad during spring practice.
Lack of prep stars
The last Gopher to start and win an NFL game at quarterback was Mike Hohensee in 1987 for the Chicago Bears. But that one has an asterisk. The NFL Players Association was on strike, and Hohensee went 2-0 as a replacement player.
Michigan has Tom Brady, Wisconsin can claim Russell Wilson, Purdue has Drew Brees and Michigan State has Kirk Cousins, to name a few. Iowa waited nearly two decades between Chuck Long and C.J. Beathard.
Nebraska has waited just as long as the Gophers in one respect. Bruce Mathison is the last Cornhusker to win an NFL game at quarterback, also during the ’87 strike. Of course, Nebraska thrived for years as an option team with college stars Turner Gill, Tommie Frazier, Eric Crouch and current coach Scott Frost under center.
In the Gophers’ case, CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming points to the long drought for Minnesota’s in-state quarterbacks. The state hasn’t produced much NFL quarterback talent since Cretin-Derham Hall products Steve Walsh (graduated 1985) and Chris Weinke (1990) made their way up the ranks.
“I think it’s just been a case of not a lot of NFL-caliber quarterbacks in the state, bad timing, and not a lot of luck,” Lemming said. “It takes a lot of luck to find the pot of gold, where a kid develops into a great one. That happens a lot; it just hasn’t happened at Minnesota.”