Max Shortell will be the Gophers' starting quarterback this weekend, but what's the big deal? He's playing at home, among friends, just throwing and catching like any normal kid his age might, OK?
That's how the Gophers want him to approach Saturday night's game against Syracuse, anyway. In other words, entirely different from his first fill-in start for MarQueis Gray last year, while Shortell was still a 19-year-old freshman. That one was a 58-0 loss to Michigan, not that anyone wants to remind Shortell of that.
"When we were going to Michigan, he had all week to think about it, so there was that build-up: 'I'm going to be playing Michigan, I'm going to be in the Big House,'" offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "I think that kind of got to him."
He's got a week to think about this one, too, but the sophomore version is a whole different quarterback, his coach said.
"He said, 'Hey, that seems like 100 years away,'" Limegrover said. "There's a definite air of confidence now. He knows he can go out and beat anybody. He's a quarterback. He's got that air about him. Didn't have that last year."
He didn't have as good a team around him, either, Shortell said after practice.
"Our offense is much further along than we were last year," he said. "The comfortability level for me is at a completely different level."
While Shortell is training as the starter, Gray is just trying to walk without pain again. The senior quarterback, who suffered sprains in his left ankle and knee during a second-quarter pileup, was out of his protective boot Tuesday and in uniform, though he did not practice.
"He's come night and day from where he was yesterday. He was out moving around, walking good," said coach Jerry Kill, who said Gray's recovery is moving even faster than his rehab from turf toe last season, an injury that kept him out of the Michigan game and the first quarter at Purdue. "If he jumps as much as he did from yesterday to today, maybe he'll be jogging tomorrow, I don't know. It certainly makes you optimistic for him."
Kill challenged Gray to get himself prepared to be Shortell's backup.
"Now, that's a pretty drastic goal, but you've got to have something to shoot for," he said. "We'll see how that works out."
Gray will be on the sidelines offering advice and insight, Kill said. Unless he can demonstrate his full mobility, however, Kill intends to utilize true freshman Philip Nelson as the backup quarterback against Syracuse, while hoping that he won't be called upon. Kill wants to preserve Nelson's season of eligibility with a redshirt, but that's not possible if he takes even one snap.
Kill made it clear that he's willing to burn Nelson's redshirt if the Gophers' fourth victory was on the line Saturday. But what about a one- or two-play substitution, say if Shortell has the wind knocked out of him, or his helmet comes off?
"You've got to have a plan for those things," Kill said, though he declined to reveal that plan. "You don't want to put somebody in for one play. So we'll have a plan. We had a plan for it last week. We've already worked on it."
One thing Kill hasn't worked on is a plan for how to proceed if Shortell is as successful while Gray heals as he was immediately after the senior starter was injured. Shortell led the Gophers on three touchdown drives, completing a 32-yard pass to Derrick Engel on his first snap. Is there a quarterback controversy pending?
"Our approach is, we're going to worry about playing this game," Kill said. "Things take care of themselves."
Just in case, though, Kill met with Gray on Monday to assess his mental state after such a disappointing injury. Turns out, it wasn't necessary, the coach said.
"He's handled it pretty well, he really has. I was a little worried about him yesterday, and talked with him. Didn't want him to get down," Kill said. "But he came out to practice, wore the orange [medical] shirt, and coached them up. He was active in practice."Note
• In an effort to create a loud and electric atmosphere for Saturday's game against Syracuse, the Gophers sold out of 5,300 upper-bowl tickets for $10 apiece in only two days, the school announced. About 1,500 tickets remain at regular prices.