Maturity helps Gophers' Gray evolve into better quarterback

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 20, 2012 - 11:54 AM

The evidence, on the field and off, shows the U's leader has processed the lessons of last year.

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Gophers coach Jerry Kill on quarterback MarQueis Gray: “You can tell he’s thrown the ball a lot. He’s been accurate all spring.”

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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It was difficult for awhile to tell which groundswell was larger last September, the start-Shortell movement or the anyone-but-Gray faction. But the Gophers starting quarterback, about to complete an impressive and successful spring, has a message for those legions of doubters:

Um ... he agrees with you?

"When I look at the footage from last year from start to finish, I'm like, 'Oh my God, I was horrible,'" MarQueis Gray admitted Thursday after another polished and precise practice. "I see why everyone was second-guessing me. ... Missing open guys, missing reads, turning the ball over -- I thought, 'Oh, man, that's not what I'm capable of.'"

Fortunately, those movies have a happy ending, one the senior quarterback hopes leads to a feel-good sequel. Gray improved as the season wore on, led the Gophers to a 20-point victory over Illinois in the season finale by running for two touchdowns and passing for another, and dedicated his winter to a more focused and intensive workout program.

He has thrown thousands of passes since the season ended, with emphasis on smoothing out his mechanics, and now appears to be a much more effective passer.

His spiral is dramatically tighter, the rotation on the ball noticeably smoother. Gray's technique in 2011, his first season as a full-time quarterback in four years, frequently appeared hesitant, as though he was gingerly tossing the ball and hoping for the best. Today, he seems decisive, zipping the ball where he wants it to go.

"You can tell he's thrown the ball a lot. He's been accurate all spring," coach Jerry Kill said. "He's been on target most of the time, setting his feet [correctly]. We blitzed him, and he's been able to know where to go with the ball. You can tell he's much more comfortable about what he's doing than he was a year ago."

All of which confirms exactly what Kill and his staff warned about from the moment they arrived in Minnesota: Gray's two seasons at wide receiver set back his development as a quarterback, and he figured to play like a freshman initially.

He did. Gray was frustratingly inconsistent, managed only three touchdown passes in the season's first seven games, and fell victim to cramps and injuries. "Pretty much, I was just going day by day, week to week, just getting thrown in there, having to learn on the run," said the 22-year-old Gray, who surrendered his starting role to freshman Max Shortell for two games because of a foot injury. "But as the season went on, I got better. I felt, 'Wow, OK, I can do this. This is me right here."

This is him now, a solid and imposing 245 pounds after a busy offseason of workouts, with a mindset to match. The playbook is familiar, the expectations understood. His mental state, he now realizes, is as important as his arm strength, and he feels he has conquered that hurdle, too.

He's always smiling, exhorting his teammates and putting them at ease. Gray also smiles when he goes home, and 5-month-old twin sons MarShawn and MarZell get excited to see him. "That's very fun. It's kind of hard being away from them all day," he said. Being a parent has helped him grow up and become more self-assured, at home and on the football field.

"I need to be confident, like the last few games" in 2011, he said. His target for 2012 is a 60 percent completion rate, after managing only 50.7 percent last season, and his 135.9 yards-per-game average could use some growth. "Once I feel confident, we do a lot better job putting points on the board," he said. "When I'm not, we had some slow moments in games."

He's still the same runner who rolled up 966 yards a year ago, most ever by a Gophers quarterback. But Gray would like to lead with his arm as well as his feet this year.

"Entering the season, most teams are probably going to load the box on us, knowing I'm a good runner," he said. "They're going to be surprised when I start passing."

Shortell also looks improved a year later, while talented freshmen Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner are also making strides this spring. But the job is clearly Gray's to grab and run with.

Kill doesn't sound surprised by Gray's evolution. The coach doesn't hedge his evaluation of his quarterback anymore, doesn't begin every description with a he's-so-inexperienced disclaimer. In fact, Kill said, his chief worry about the offense is finding players to help him thrive.

"Our receivers have to go and get the ball better," Kill said. "MarQueis is good -- we've got to get everybody else to step it up around him."

The moment Kill realized how much Gray has grown didn't come on the football field, however. In the team meeting where the coach broke the news that linebacker Gary Tinsley had died, Gray suddenly stood up and reminded his teammates that they are a family.

"That showed me something there. That's not easy to do," Kill said. "I think we've come a long way."

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