Freshman Philip Nelson possesses the ideal recognition and reaction skills to run the U offense.
Philip Nelson moves into his new football home, TCF Bank Stadium, on Saturday when he quarterbacks Minnesota against Purdue. But in some ways, Gophers coaches say, Nelson actually arrived home a week ago, when he stepped up to the controls of an offense that might as well have been designed with him in mind.
"I wouldn't say [his ability is] unique, but it definitely is a fit for what we're looking for -- a quarterback who can do things with his legs but isn't just a wildcat [formation] running back. He can throw the ball, he can distribute," said offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover, who helped formulate coach Jerry Kill's playbook that Nelson puts in motion. "It's the ability to make good, quick decisions, and be able to run the football."
That's because Kill's teams have for several years employed a "zone-read" offense, an increasingly common hybrid of spread formations and option plays that puts the responsibility for deciding where the ball will go into the hands, and reflexes, of the quarterback. No longer do coaches send a specific play into the huddle and expect it to be executed as designed; in today's football, from high schools to the NFL, offensive coordinators prefer to wait until the defense reveals its plans, even after the snap, to settle on an attack.
"I've been running it for years, really. ... It's very similar to what I did in high school -- zone reads, quarterback runs, throwing the ball," Nelson said. "I feel really comfortable with it."
In its most basic form, the zone-read asks the quarterback to make two assessments: Is the free safety covering the run or the pass? Does the defensive end away from the direction of the play hold his ground or charge into the backfield?
The first read dictates whether the Gophers will run or pass. The second determines whether the quarterback hands the ball to a tailback or keeps it himself. A quarterback running the offense requires football instincts, the ability to throw accurately and on the run, and the toughness and elusiveness of a running back.
In other words, Nelson's particular skill set.
"That's been Philip's M.O. since we started watching him [at Mankato West High School]," Limegrover said. "We just fell in love with the way he fits our offense."
It works for MarQueis Gray, too, though he's a better runner than passer. And for Max Shortell, though at 6-6 he doesn't have the same speed as the other two quarterbacks. Nelson -- or so the Gophers project -- combines the two abilities to a more effective degree, and adds another handy skill, too.
"He's got the quickest release of the three, without a doubt," Kill said. "He can get the ball out in a hurry, so fast we didn't [always] have a receiver [ready for the throw]. He can throw it without [lining up] the laces. ... When we recruit quarterbacks, we're looking for that quick release."
That release means Nelson can spot an opening in the defense and deliver the ball to a receiver or back on a "bubble screen" before the defense can react.
"It's huge because, it's no secret, we're not able to mash people right now up front. So we consider the quick screens and the bubbles as part of our run game," Limegrover said. "If we can get a quick bubble to [receiver A.J.] Barker or somebody and get them 8 to 10 to 12 yards, that's as good as a run to us. You need a guy who's got a quick release and is accurate, and that's what Philip brings to us."
The zone-read has become especially popular for teams that, as Limegrover said, aren't able to physically overpower their opponents at the line of scrimmage. But it normally requires months, even years to master, because so many decisions have to be made in such a short time. The quarterback has to decide if he will pass, and where. If he decides not to throw, he puts the ball in the tailback's stomach, but then must decide instantly -- based on keys such as which way the defensive end's shoulders are turned -- whether to let go or pull the ball back and run. Nelson, for instance, ran the ball 16 times at Wisconsin, more than half the Gophers' total of 30 rushing attempts.
Why would a team put so much responsibility on a freshman who turned 19 last month?
"The only thing I hadn't done in high school is go under center, but I got all that out of the way in the spring and I feel comfortable under center now, too," Nelson said. "That offense is something that brought me here."
His arriving on campus in time for spring practice -- six months earlier than most recruits -- helped convince the Gophers that Nelson is ready.
"The greatest thing is, he's kind of a freshman-plus," Limegrover said. "Coming in in January, he really dove in. He's got all the tools, but I'll be honest, if we didn't think he was mentally ready to handle all the things that were going to happen to him ... we wouldn't have gone in that direction."
Instead, they handed the playbook to the teenager, a decision the Gophers hope they won't have to revisit until after the 2015 season.
"We have a lot of confidence in Philip," Kill said. "He looks to me like a special kid."
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