Philip Nelson is 19 years old and has played in seven college football games, but, strangely, he considers himself an old man.
That’s a good thing for the Gophers football team.
“There’s still so much more to learn, too,” he said.
That’s also a good thing for the Gophers, who begin practice for the 2013 season in a few weeks with a higher comfort level at quarterback that otherwise would be absent if coach Jerry Kill had not wisely removed Nelson’s redshirt midway through his freshman season.
Sure, circumstances forced Kill’s hand at the time — no other quarterback was healthy enough to start against Wisconsin — but it was the right decision in October and it looks even better now because the Gophers aren’t starting from scratch at the most important position in a critical year for the program.
Year 3 of Kill’s tenure needs to continue a steady climb out of the mess that Tim Brewster left. The Gophers qualified for a bowl game last season, and the program must deliver another tangible sign of improvement to underscore the belief that better days lie ahead.
Would you rather start this season with a semi-experienced quarterback or one who hasn’t played a snap of college football?
A segment of fans become grumpy whenever a coach removes a freshman’s redshirt, and Kill certainly had his critics in Nelson’s case. But assuming Nelson stays healthy and keeps his job — neither is a given, of course — he would start 40-plus games in his college career. Any quarterback would be happy with that.
Nelson’s résumé is still fairly limited so he must earn his starting job in fall camp. Kill’s staff is not just going to hand it to him. The coaches praised redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner throughout spring practice and that competition will resume in early August. And if the revolving door at QB last season proved anything, the Gophers know they will probably need both quarterbacks at some point.
Nelson has the benefit of his seven-game debut last season that provided invaluable and unexpected on-the-job training. He had some good moments, some rough moments and some he’d probably assume forget. The entire stretch felt like a blur.
“At times, you’re thinking about so many things that you kind of miss out on the main things,” he said.
But he can’t imagine where he would be now without those experiences.
“That would definitely make it more difficult,” he said.
Nelson dissected his 2012 season in the film room this summer. He has watched every game twice — the first time focused on what plays worked against certain defenses, the second time zeroed in on third downs specifically. He has a stack of notebook binders in his bedroom filled with notes, concepts and opponents’ defensive tendencies.
At the request of coaches, Nelson also identified plays that left him in “funky” situations. For instance, on one play, he had a short underneath route to a receiver moving to his right. But a pass rusher from his right forced him to move to his left, causing an awkward throw. Nelson and the rest of the quarterbacks created their own drill in individual workouts to simulate that exact scenario in case it happens again.
“Just being able to get your feet wet, you know what to expect,” Nelson said. “I have a better understanding of what’s going to come and how to read coverages and being able to pick apart a defense.”
There’s no substitute for experience in that regard. Former Gophers quarterback Bryan Cupito said his comfort level was “100 percent different” in his second season as a starter.
“The first year you find out that it’s a big-boy level,” Cupito said. “It’s the first time you hear negative stuff said and written about you, and your confidence wavers. You learn how to deal with that. That second year, you know what to expect on and off the field.”
The Gophers hope to run the ball more effectively this season to ease some of the burden on the quarterback. Kill’s preferred blueprint features a hard-nosed running game that sets up play-action passes. He believes his team’s personnel and mentality are trending that direction.
Quarterback play remains the key to success, and the Gophers are starting in a better position now than originally anticipated. Nelson still must prove that he can handle the job and play at a high level consistently. But he’s already absorbed the shock of Big Ten football. His head shouldn’t be spinning anymore.