Starting at quarterback, a ray of hope

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 21, 2011 - 8:58 PM

MarQueis Gray excites and concerns his coach and provides U fans a rallying point.

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When Gophers football coach Jerry Kill (left) watches quarterback MarQueis Gray, he sees “a Big Ten, Division I athlete. That’s what they’re supposed to look like.”

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Jerry Kill often tells the story of his first encounter with Marqueis Gray, and accuses Gophers officials of trying to fool him into thinking that "they all look like that.''

That's funny. This is more meaningful:

"I didn't even get to walk in the door, and the kid got to me,'' the Gophers football coach said Friday over breakfast. "He was waiting on me outside the facility, and he wanted me to know that he wanted to play quarterback.''

In the Twin Cities, with just about every money-making team in town floundering, Gray represents a rare ray of hope. At the Gophers' spring game, Gray looked like Michael Vick playing flag football with high schoolers.

Gray may not be dynamic enough to make the Gophers winners this year. He might be dynamic enough, though, to make the Gophers interesting.

"I have made the statement, and I believe this,'' Kill said. "It would be scary what this kid would look like if he would have started out at quarterback. I've watched Terrelle Pryor and some of the quarterbacks everyone talks about, and this guy, athletically, is as gifted as anyone. He just hasn't played the position.''

Kill isn't exaggerating. Gray won the starting quarterback job at Ben Davis High in Indianapolis during his sophomore season. His playing time as a junior and senior was limited by injuries.

Former Gophers coach Tim Brewster recruited Gray. In fact, recruiting Gray was by far the best thing Brewster did at the U. Of course, Brewster then diminished his own accomplishment by playing Gray at receiver and bringing in a succession of offensive coordinators who seemed to thoroughly discombobulate incumbent quarterback Adam Weber.

Kill sees Gray not as a superior athlete who can play quarterback. He sees Gray as a quarterback who is a superior athlete.

"He's a youngster who really hasn't played quarterback in four years,'' Kill said. "He was promised an opportunity at quarterback, so we honored that. Usually, with a youngster like that, playing wide receiver, I figured spring ball would be a total mess, because of reading coverages and the demands of the position.

"We talked about holding things back, but I said, 'Hey, if this sucker is going to play quarterback, he's going to have to call plays and make checks at the line, we might as well throw him in and see what he can do.'

"I was amazed, that someone who hadn't been in that position for four years could play as well as he did. He wasn't a great leader or anything, because, in spring ball, he was just trying to learn the position. But he picked up things much better than I would have thought. He got us in the right plays most of the time, and then I was shocked by how well he threw the ball.''

If the Gophers football program were an old building, it would currently be surrounded by scaffolding.

Kill has a lot of work to do. He inherited a program lacking skill, speed and talent, a team that wasn't coached very well.

The Gophers' best play this fall might be Gray scrambles. Kill and his staff will be challenged to get the most out of Gray while keeping him healthy.

"If you get to know him, you'll really like him,'' Kill said. "He goes to class. He's on time. He has worked hard.

"Now, I told him during weight training, before spring practice, 'You don't know how to work yet, not if you're going to get to the next level some day -- you have no clue what you have to do at this position.

"But I think he's learning. Will he do it? Yes. Does he know exactly how to do it yet? No. But he hasn't had the guidance to do that yet.''

Kill's staff is trying to provide that guidance. Gray has remained on campus and continued to work with coaches and watch film.

"I'm not being disrespectful to Adam Weber, but I wonder what Marqueis would have looked like if he had gotten a lot of quarterback reps. When I look out on our field, I say, 'Boy, there's a Big Ten, Division I athlete. That's what they're supposed to look like.' ''

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2:40 p.m. on 1500ESPN. His Twitter name is Souhanstrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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