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Continued: Abandoning Bucky: Philip Nelson's U-turn to Minnesota

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 19, 2012 - 6:39 AM

MANKATO - Philip Nelson has a souvenir photo from one of the more memorable days of his college recruitment, a memento that these days drips with more irony than reminiscence.

The high school quarterback, then a junior and the object of an increasingly intense pursuit by Division I football programs, stands holding Paul Bunyan's Axe in the photo, admiring one of college football's most enduring trophies just moments after it was captured for a seventh consecutive season by Wisconsin. Nelson is standing in the Badgers locker room at Camp Randall Stadium, barely a mile from the hospital where he was born, a short drive from the suburban neighborhood where he grew up.

Nelson wasn't asked to make a commitment that October day 15 months ago, and he's glad of that now. In the gauzy euphoria of the moment, the teenager says today, Wisconsin "was pretty tempting." And Minnesota? "No shot," Nelson said with a smile. "I ruled them out right away."

Which is why Nelson, one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in Minnesota high school history, seems almost amused to find himself walking the Minneapolis campus now as an early enrollee attending classes and settling in to college life only a few blocks from TCF Bank Stadium.

Nelson, ranked by longtime recruiting expert Tom Lemming as the fourth-best senior QB in the nation, is the signature member of Jerry Kill's 2012 recruiting class. On Feb. 1, he'll become perhaps the most prominent Gophers recruit to sign since MarQueis Gray -- a senior-to-be and the incumbent starting QB.

"It's funny how things change," Nelson said. "Right away I was like, 'Oh yeah, Madison, Madison, Madison.' But it's not like cheering for a team as a fan. It's too important -- it's your life, what your life will be like the next five years. It's going to be who you are, so you have to picture that, not just, 'Oh, I root for this team.'"

If only some grown-ups had such a grown-up attitude. Nelson has heard the occasional taunt, mostly in jest, from Badgers fans and especially old friends in Wisconsin. But his parents, who met at Wisconsin and raised their three kids in Sun Prairie, only 10 miles northeast of the Madison campus until moving to Mankato seven years ago, received less-lighthearted flak over Philip's decision.

"I took a lot of phone calls when [his son's commitment] was announced. 'How could you dare be a Badger and let your kid go play at Minnesota?'" said Pat Nelson, Philip's father and a Wisconsin alum. "I was surprised at how worked up people got."

When Pat was offered a job in 2005 managing food-ingredients plants in Minnesota, he moved his family to Mankato, an event that Philip recalls as traumatic for a 10-year-old. "I was not a happy person. I fought it. I declared I'd never like Minnesota, and that I'd move out and go back as soon as I can," he said, and his older sister, Meredith, followed through by enrolling at Wisconsin two years ago. Philip's position obviously has softened, though he still said, "Madison will always be my hometown. You can never forget where you come from."

Great expectations

If Nelson's Big Ten career at Minnesota is anything like his Big Nine accomplishments at Mankato West, the Badgers never will forget where he went. Nelson was a talented, if a little scrawny, quarterback for the Scarlets who announced himself with a four-touchdown debut in his lone start as a freshman. He racked up yards, touchdowns and victories during the next two seasons but emerged to national notice by growing to 6-3 and 223 pounds, and engineering a brilliant senior year.

That year featured more than 4,000 yards of offense including 1,243 rushing yards, and 55 touchdowns in only 12 games, the first 11 of which were victories. (The top-ranked Scarlets lost to Bemidji in the Class 4A semifinals.) He set a state record with 135 career touchdowns, and his 7,564 passing yards and 94 scoring passes rank second in Minnesota history. He was named Mr. Football by the state's high school coaches, Minnesota Player of the Year by the Associated Press, and the state's MVP by Gatorade. He was invited by the Vikings to act as honorary captain before an NFL game, and drafted by the Marines earlier this month to play in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl.

Beyond the accolades, though, Nelson is "exactly what [Gophers coach] Jerry Kill would want in a quarterback," said Zach Johnson, publisher of Gopher Illustrated, the local rivals.com affiliate. "He's a pro-style passer who can hurt you if you don't respect his ability to tuck the ball and run. Just like Chandler Harnish -- he's the perfect fit for what Kill wants out of a quarterback." Harnish was Kill's quarterback at Northern Illinois, and last season rushed for more yards than any QB in major college football.

Proper perspective

Nelson also is a soft-spoken, attention-deflecting athlete who sounds more proud of his ability to dunk a basketball in junior high school than racking up touchdowns. He used to enjoy basketball more than football, and even named the family dog "Kobe," but he injured his left knee during a game as a freshman and gave up the sport.

He's a 3.6-GPA student who graduated a semester early to get a head start on college. He's a humble leader who becomes more animated talking about his younger sister Lindsay's soccer ability than his own athleticism, who shrugs at his trophies and insists he'd trade them all for the state championship that eluded the Scarlets. He takes time after games to pose for pictures with the grade-school kids who flock to him looking for wristbands and autographs, and shake hands with admiring adults.

"If none of this was happening, if I was overlooked, that would be fine with me," Nelson said. "But I've even met Gopher fans who drive down to Mankato to watch me play. It's amazing how excited people get."

Kill and his staff were among the most excited almost a year ago, when Nelson reversed his opinion about the Gophers. Kill reached out to Nelson only hours after he was hired at Minnesota in December 2010, making it clear that he wanted a chance to make a case for Nelson staying home. That impressed the teenager, who had explored campuses at Iowa State, Iowa and Wisconsin more than once, but other than a brief conversation with Cyclones coach Paul Rhoads, had never met a head coach.

"He talked to me one-on-one, not through an assistant. He said, 'We've been keeping track of you, we've watched film of you. You're our first offer at quarterback -- you're our only one right now,'" Nelson said.

Once quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski followed Kill from Northern Illinois, he overwhelmed Nelson with attention and information, and pointed out that Kill's staff stays together. That meant a lot, Nelson said, especially because Wisconsin's staff has had so much turnover. "Coach Z, he's crazy," Nelson said. "He's a young guy, and he eats and sleeps football. I got to like him right away and he liked me right away. I know I can learn a lot from him."

Relishing the challenge

Nelson was surprised at how quickly he made up his mind. He accepted Kill's scholarship offer in February and asked his high school coach to deflect all other recruiters.

"There's something that intrigues me about being part of a turnaround in your home state," Nelson said. "Anybody can go to a school that has a great tradition, but six years from now, if this thing is turned around and I'm a part of it, you'll be saying, 'This was the class that did it, this was the team.' I want to be part of that."

Even if it means disappointing his former hometown. "When Philip arrives in Madison as the quarterback someday, he's going to have a target on his back the size of Texas," Pat Nelson said. "It's going to be crazy. But I think he relishes that challenge."

  • related content

  • Chart: Philip Nelson outtakes

    Wednesday January 18, 2012

    MarQueis Gray is the Gophers' presumed starter at quarterback for his senior season next fall, which likely means Nelson will spend 2012 learning the offense as a redshirt.

  • Philip Nelson

  • Philip Nelson and his father, Pat, a Wisconsin alum, shared lunch at the family’s Mankato home. Philip accelerated his high school studies and enrolled at the U this semester.

  • GOPHERS FOOTBALL RECRUITING 2012

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Minnesota 35 FINAL
Miami 37
Baltimore 13 FINAL
Houston 25
Detroit 20 FINAL
Chicago 14
Cleveland 13 FINAL
Carolina 17
Atlanta 30 FINAL
New Orleans 14
Green Bay 20 FINAL
Tampa Bay 3
Kansas City 12 FINAL
Pittsburgh 20
New England 17 FINAL
NY Jets 16
NY Giants 37 FINAL
St. Louis 27
Buffalo 24 FINAL
Oakland 26
Indianapolis 7 FINAL
Dallas 42
Seattle 0 1st Qtr 12:51
Arizona 0
Denver 12/22/14 7:30 PM
Cincinnati
New York 108 FINAL
Toronto 118
Memphis 91 FINAL
Cleveland 105
Boston 84 FINAL
Miami 100
Detroit 105 FINAL
Brooklyn 110
LA Lakers 98 4th Qtr 0:10
Sacramento 106
Philadelphia 96 FINAL
Orlando 88
Phoenix 104 FINAL
Washington 92
Indiana 65 3rd Qtr 4:17
Minnesota 59
New Orleans 71 3rd Qtr 4:16
Oklahoma City 70
Colorado 1 3rd Prd
Detroit 1
Dallas 5 3rd Prd 3:22
Edmonton 5
Buffalo 2 2nd Prd 4:39
Boston 1
Carolina 0 2nd Prd 5:52
NY Rangers 1
Toronto 0 2nd Prd 5:50
Chicago 2
Philadelphia 8:00 PM
Winnipeg
Harvard 27 FINAL
Virginia 76
Maine 69 FINAL
Army 72
Ferris State 82 FINAL
Bowling Green 68
San Francisco 65 FINAL
Cleveland State 69
Oregon State 52 FINAL
Quinnipiac 60
Coastal Carolina 72 FINAL
Central Arkansas 55
Holy Cross 48 FINAL
Canisius 67
Southern Miss 55 FINAL
Georgia State 68
Western Carolina 66 FINAL
UNC-Asheville 62
Creighton 58 FINAL
North Texas 62
Maryland 73 FINAL
Oklahoma State 64
Cornell 61 FINAL
Radford 74
Vermont 55 FINAL
Saint Louis 58
Loyola-Maryland 52 FINAL
Stony Brook 67
Reinhardt 72 FINAL
Winthrop 100
Ark-Little Rock 46 FINAL
Green Bay 66
TX-Pan American 72 FINAL
Nebraska Omaha 77
Alabama State 63 FINAL
Evansville 81
FIU 69 FINAL
Hartford 82
Goshen 55 FINAL
Valparaiso 82
Bryant 48 FINAL
Denver 46
Austin Peay 63 FINAL
Lipscomb 69
Tennessee St 47 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 65
South Dakota 67 FINAL
Montana 62
ULM 50 FINAL
Samford 64
Coker 52 FINAL
South Carolina 78
USC 75 FINAL
Boston College 71
Northern Ariz 66 FINAL
Hampton 75
SD Christian 61 FINAL
San Diego 71
UC Irvine 55 FINAL
Bradley 47
Troy 65 FINAL
Nicholls 64
Seton Hall 47 FINAL
Georgia 65
Appalachian St 59 FINAL
Alabama 60
North Dakota St 48 2nd Half 1:40
Kent State 48
San Jose St 40 2nd Half 9:47
Washington St 62
Alcorn State 8:00 PM
Texas-El Paso
Sacramento St 9:00 PM
Seattle
Nevada 3 FINAL
Louisiana 16
Utah State 21 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 6
(23) Utah 45 FINAL
Colorado State 10
Western Mich 24 FINAL
Air Force 38
South Alabama 28 FINAL
Bowling Green 33
BYU 12/22/14 1:00 PM
Memphis
Marshall 12/23/14 5:00 PM
Northern Ill
Navy 12/23/14 8:30 PM
San Diego St
Central Mich 12/24/14 11:00 AM
Western Ky
Fresno State 12/24/14 7:00 PM
Rice
Illinois 12/26/14 12:00 PM
Louisiana Tech
Rutgers 12/26/14 3:30 PM
North Carolina
NC State 12/26/14 7:00 PM
UCF
Cincinnati 12/27/14 12:00 PM
Virginia Tech
Duke 12/27/14 1:10 PM
(15) Arizona State
Miami-Florida 12/27/14 3:00 PM
So Carolina
Boston College 12/27/14 3:30 PM
Penn State
(25) Nebraska 12/27/14 7:00 PM
(24) USC
Cal-Irvine 55 FINAL
Denver 63
St Marys-CA 52 FINAL
George Washington 70
TX-San Antonio 49 FINAL
Nicholls 57
Portland State 71 FINAL
Columbia 66
Tenn Tech 62 FINAL
Morgan State 56
SMU 43 FINAL
Auburn 56
Quinnipiac 70 FINAL
Hartford 58
Hofstra 75 FINAL
Boston College 61
Eastern Washington 55 FINAL
Georgia Southern 42
Liberty 44 FINAL
(1) South Carolina 84
Fairleigh Dickinson 74 FINAL
Brown 79
Buffalo 73 FINAL
Long Island 79
Bucknell 74 FINAL
Mount St Marys 49
Stony Brook 70 FINAL
Wagner 76
FIU 83 FINAL
Wofford 75
Duquesne 56 FINAL
Providence 67
Maine 54 FINAL
William & Mary 51
Alabama State 43 FINAL
Samford 56
TX-Pan American 43 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 64
South Dakota St 64 FINAL
Marist 82
Saint Josephs 50 FINAL
(5) Notre Dame 64
Radford 60 FINAL
Virginia Tech 73
(3) Texas 67 FINAL
(4) Texas A&M 65
Rhode Island 60 FINAL
Bryant 56
South Florida 90 FINAL
Penn State 87
Sam Houston St 55 FINAL
TCU 79
Evansville 50 FINAL
IUPUI 62
(14) Maryland 110 FINAL
Coppin State 51
Mercer 59 FINAL
Coll of Charleston 72
NC A&T 43 FINAL
Chattanooga 58
Princeton 84 FINAL
Monmouth 53
Eastern Illinois 69 FINAL
Lehigh 72
Rider 67 FINAL
Binghamton 72
SC State 57 FINAL
Clemson 66
Fairfield 63 FINAL
Iowa State 76
Richmond 70 FINAL
Eastern Kentucky 56
Cleveland State 80 FINAL
Morehead St 72
Kent State 62 FINAL
Colgate 61
South Alabama 43 FINAL
UAB 73
Saint Peters 35 FINAL
Navy 71
Youngstown St 52 FINAL
Pittsburgh 78
NJIT 50 FINAL
Lafayette 66
Davidson 51 FINAL
Charlotte 86
Indiana State 73 FINAL
St Johns 67
Southern U 49 FINAL
Florida 78
Wright State 46 FINAL
Purdue 70
(19) Oklahoma St 66 FINAL
USC 62
Houston 54 FINAL
Texas Tech 60
Ark-Little Rock 66 FINAL
Tulsa 59
Dayton 71 FINAL
Vanderbilt 67
Northern Ariz 37 FINAL
New Mexico 56
UNC-Asheville 60 FINAL
USC Upstate 67
North Dakota 81 FINAL
South Dakota 86
Western Ill 57 FINAL
Marquette 65
Elon 67 FINAL
(6) North Carolina 85
Ball State 59 FINAL
Western Ky 84
(8) Kentucky 68 FINAL
(13) Duke 89
New Orleans 58 FINAL
Alabama 87
Chicago State 47 FINAL
Milwaukee 69
Bowling Green 61 FINAL
Bradley 47
Ill-Springfield 56 FINAL
SE Missouri St 73
Northern Ill 42 FINAL
Northern Iowa 51
(23) Iowa 100 FINAL
Drake 98
Central Michigan 64 FINAL
Minnesota 67
Western Carolina 45 FINAL
North Florida 62
Wyoming 71 FINAL
Colorado 76
Portland 58 FINAL
Boise State 94
Cal Poly 63 FINAL
Colorado State 65
No Dakota State 54 FINAL
Grand Canyon 69
Albany 71 FINAL
Cal State Fullerton 49
Oklahoma 64 FINAL
Arkansas 71
Idaho State 63 FINAL
Seattle 55
(18) Michigan State 89 FINAL
(19) Syracuse 76
Northwestern 75 FINAL
Arizona State 88
TX-Arlington 46 FINAL
North Texas 38
Fresno State 68 FINAL
Oregon 59
St Francis-PA 75 FINAL
Coastal Carolina 72
UNLV 71 FINAL
CS-Bakersfield 74
UCLA 50 FINAL
(2) Connecticut 86
(10) Louisville 70 FINAL
(24) California 57
Howard 53 FINAL
Virginia 74
Miami-Ohio 29 2nd Half 6:37
(21) Miss State 54
Illinois-Chicago 8:30 PM
Old Dominion
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