Scoggins: QB controversy can be a positive for the Gophers

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 18, 2012 - 11:13 AM
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With quarterback MarQueis Gray (pictured) out for about a month because of a high ankle sprain, Max Shortell (5) will take over as Gophers quarterback. But when Gray returns, could the team make use of both their contrasting talents?

Photo: Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

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The Gophers football team doesn't just have a possible quarterback controversy. It also has a quarterback opportunity.

No, seriously. Why not look at the advantages along with the potential quandary that awaits the coaching staff once MarQueis Gray's injured ankle heals?

The Gophers have two quarterbacks with two different skill sets. They have different strengths, different weaknesses, different personalities.

Gray is a better runner and athlete, Max Shortell is a better passer. The offense relies on both facets, and the coaching staff trusts them in different situations.

So why not use both to maximize that position? It's worth considering to see if a tag-team approach provides some benefits.

Western Michigan coach Bill Cubit acknowledged that his defense had to recalibrate its game plan once Gray left and Shortell entered Saturday's game in the second quarter.

"No offense to Gray," he said, "[but] you have a guy who can throw it around a little bit more."

That's precisely the point. Why not use both to keep defenses guessing?

This is not a call for a 50-50 quarterback split. Or even 80-20 necessarily. But some combination of the two might make the Gophers offense less predictable by giving defenses different looks.

Normally, we subscribe to the theory that any team that believes it has two starting quarterbacks actually has none. Quarterback rotations can turn awkward and divisive and downright messy if not handled properly. It's up to Jerry Kill and his staff to manage that issue.

Few things in football stoke fans and media like a good, old-fashioned quarterback debate. Coaches hate them, we love 'em. People choose sides and argue the merits of their preferred quarterback, as if there's only one correct answer.

The Gophers' situation could get resolved before it ever reaches that stage. Gray suffered a high ankle sprain and likely will miss a few games. Shortell will get an opportunity to prove himself as a starter in the interim.

The sophomore played well in relief Saturday, passing for 188 yards and three touchdowns with one interception in a 28-23 victory. Let's see how he does in a different role against defenses that are prepared for him, starting Saturday against Syracuse.

If Shortell gets on a roll and the team responds, he should remain the starter. If he struggles, Gray gets the nod. If the results are in the middle, the talk show phone lines are open. Regardless, both have skills that should be exploited.

Understandably, this potentially could become a delicate issue. That's just the nature of the position. Plus, Gray is deeply respected inside the program and carries a certain status as a senior leader. Players look up to him. That's not to be taken lightly.

Ideally, Gray would have done enough in the first three games to render this a moot discussion. Yes, the Gophers are 3-0 with him as the starter, but he struggled against UNLV in the opener, attempted only eight passes against New Hampshire and completed three of six passes before departing Saturday's game. That game had a bad vibe until Shortell took over.

The coaching staff clearly opened up the passing portion of the playbook when Shortell entered the game, and the Gophers need to get with the times in that regard because college football revolves around freewheeling passing attacks. Last year in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A), 24 quarterbacks completed at least 65 percent of their passes. Gray completed 50.7 percent as the Gophers ranked 109th nationally in passing offense.

Gray, however, gives the offense a dynamic that shouldn't be eliminated if Shortell remains the starter. He's too athletic and talented to just stand on the sideline. Any thought of using him strictly as a running threat or in a predictable wildcat formation also should be ignored.

Give him several series under normal circumstances. Put him in shotgun and let him pass. Heck, line him up in a backfield with Shortell with several options. The Gophers tried Gray in a change-of-pace role as a freshman with little impact. He's a different player today.

If Gray returns as the starter once healthy, the Gophers should mix in Shortell as a changeup, too. He's proven that he can give them a spark off the bench.

The concern with this approach is its effect on the offense's chemistry and rhythm. Sometimes it works, sometimes it bombs. But it's worth a shot. The Gophers are facing a brewing quarterback controversy. They might as well make the most of it.

Chip Scoggins ascoggins@startribune.com

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