MADISON, WIS. - Jerry Kill probably felt like a human piñata this past week. At every turn -- thwack! -- the Gophers football coach absorbed blunt-force frustration from fans and media over his decision to fork over $800,000 to cancel a home-and-home series against North Carolina.
That announcement likewise proved costly in public relations goodwill, but Kill quietly made a second critical decision that was right on the mark.
Kill's willingness to remove the redshirt from freshman quarterback Philip Nelson on Saturday was prompted by injuries at that position, but it absolutely was the right call to turn the page and give Nelson control of the offense, even if the result was entirely predictable.
Nelson endured a baptism-by-fire debut in a 38-13 loss to Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. He passed for 149 yards and two touchdowns with two interceptions. He also rushed for a team-high 67 yards on 16 carries.
Nelson did some good things and had some tough moments, but he finished the game and will benefit because of it. That's all that matters right now.
The Gophers have lost their first three Big Ten games and clearly have miles to go before they are competitive in conference play. They still have a chance to reach bowl eligibility, but they can't lose sight of the big picture. They're trying to build a program, and getting Nelson experience this season is an important step in that process.
"There's no question we made a good decision," Kill said.
Granted, they didn't have too many other good options. MarQueis Gray's body is battered to the point that he was available only as a wide receiver. Max Shortell suffered an injury last week that required a midweek MRI and affected his ability to throw the ball. The Gophers could have pieced something together to preserve Nelson's redshirt, but at this point, why not start his clock and let him get his feet wet?
"With the lack of durability at that position, we said, 'Hey, we need to get this guy some experience,'" Kill said. "I feel like it's going to help us a lot in the long run."
Fans tend to become overly annoyed whenever a coach removes a freshman's redshirt during the season. That's understandable, and it's certainly reckless if that happens late in the season with only a few games remaining. But Nelson took over at the season's halfway point. He gets six Big Ten games to gain valuable experience. That shouldn't be discounted or dismissed as a wasted season.
College football is so fluid and unpredictable that it's not always prudent to become consumed by what might happen four years from now. It's not like Kill and his staff aren't going to recruit more quarterbacks behind Nelson. A lot can happen between now and 2016, which is when Nelson would have been a fifth-year senior.
The Gophers need Nelson to take his lumps and growing pains so that he returns next season more confident and comfortable with everything. On a smaller scale, the situation feels similar to the plan the Vikings used with Christian Ponder last season. Throw him into the fire, let him learn on the job and, presumably, he'll benefit from that experience in Year 2.
"It will benefit greatly," Nelson said. "We'll be able to build some team chemistry between me and the offensive line and the receivers. It will make things go smoothly next year."
That's their hope, anyway. Nelson's development suddenly becomes the overriding theme the rest of the season. He is the starter even when Gray and Shortell regain their health.
Kill indicated that Gray will still get an occasional series at quarterback as a change of pace, but wide receiver is his primary position now. Shortell simply did not capitalize on his opportunity in Gray's absence, so he becomes a backup.
In a perfect world, Nelson would have started from Day 1, but he wasn't ready and Gray deserved the opportunity to see if he could build on last season. The landscape changed because of injuries and ineffectiveness, and the Gophers find themselves in a different place.
They need to see if the young blue-chip quarterback from Mankato is as good everyone believes and get him experience so he's not starting from scratch next fall.
"We've got to look down the road here a little bit," Kill said. "We'll still redshirt over 20 kids. But we also need some kids to get experience because we don't want to keep coming to Wisconsin with somebody who's not experienced."
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org