Gophers offense fits for freshman QB Nelson

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 27, 2012 - 8:22 AM

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."

  • GOPHERS VS. PURDUE • 2:30 p.m. today • TCF Bank Stadium • TV: Big Ten Network (100.3-FM, 1130-AM)

  • get related content delivered to your inbox

  • manage my email subscriptions

ADVERTISEMENT

Atlanta 6 FINAL
Detroit 4
Philadelphia 3 FINAL
Houston 6
St. Louis 4 FINAL
Miami 1
Baltimore 3 FINAL
Tampa Bay 2
NY Yankees 2 FINAL
Pittsburgh 1
Chicago Cubs 6 FINAL
San Francisco 8
Los Angeles 6 FINAL
Chicago WSox 1
San Diego 4 FINAL
Seattle 9
Cleveland 9 FINAL
Cincinnati 3
Milwaukee 2 FINAL
LA Angels 3
Oakland 2 FINAL
Chicago Cubs 2
Texas 4 FINAL
Kansas City 5
Colorado 3 FINAL
Arizona 4
NY Mets 4 FINAL
Washington 5
Boston 8 FINAL
Minnesota 9
Toronto 0 FINAL
Baltimore 5
Oklahoma City 105 FINAL
Chicago 108
Dallas 75 FINAL
Portland 94
Calgary 4 FINAL(SO)
Boston 3
St. Louis 1 FINAL
Philadelphia 3
Minnesota 2 FINAL
Washington 1
Toronto 2 FINAL
Tampa Bay 4
Dallas 4 FINAL(SO)
Florida 3
NY Islanders 4 FINAL
Nashville 3
Vancouver 2 FINAL(SO)
Arizona 3
Montreal 3 FINAL(SO)
Los Angeles 4
Morgan State 76 FINAL
MD-Eastern Shore 89
Niagara 54 FINAL
Siena 71
Holy Cross 83 FINAL
Bucknell 90
Western Ky 88 FINAL
Charlotte 84
Navy 62 FINAL
Colgate 72
Temple 70 FINAL
East Carolina 56
UAB 59 FINAL
Fla Atlantic 62
Boston Univ 64 FINAL
Lafayette 89
American Univ 68 FINAL
Lehigh 62
Wisconsin 76 FINAL
Minnesota 63
Fairfield 33 FINAL
Saint Peters 63
Arkansas 78 FINAL
South Carolina 74
Morehead State 76 FINAL
UT Martin 65
USC Upstate 63 FINAL
Fla Gulf Coast 62
Lipscomb 57 FINAL
North Florida 71
Southern Ill 55 FINAL
Missouri State 48
Texas State 64 FINAL
Appalachian St 67
SC State 62 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 72
Delaware State 104 FINAL
Coppin State 92
Middle Tennessee 54 FINAL
FIU 59
Texas-Arlington 64 FINAL
Ga Southern 76
Norfolk State 80 FINAL
Hampton 69
NC A&T 58 FINAL
NC Central 69
Savannah State 57 FINAL
Florida A&M 64
Southern Miss 61 FINAL
Louisiana Tech 72
Marshall 50 FINAL
Old Dominion 67
Rice 76 FINAL
TX-San Antonio 74
South Alabama 81 FINAL
Arkansas State 76
Alabama State 78 FINAL
Grambling St 46
Alabama A&M 54 FINAL
Jackson State 72
Sam Houston St 67 FINAL
Lamar 61
Georgia State 58 FINAL
ULM 50
Central Arkansas 70 FINAL
Nicholls 77
Portland State 51 FINAL
Northern Ariz 58
Southern U 77 FINAL
Prairie View 73
Alcorn State 73 FINAL
Texas Southern 94
Houston Baptist 72 FINAL
TX A&M-CC 85
Ark-Little Rock 69 FINAL
Louisiana 75
SE Louisiana 79 FINAL
New Orleans 85
California 60 FINAL
Arizona 99
Memphis 54 FINAL
Connecticut 53
VA Commonwealth 55 FINAL
Davidson 82
Ark-Pine Bluff 0 Postponed
Miss Valley St 0
Sacramento St 65 FINAL
Southern Utah 69
Northwestern St 66 FINAL
Stephen F Austin 92
North Texas 60 FINAL
Texas-El Paso 83
Colorado 64 FINAL
Washington 47
Idaho 63 FINAL
Weber State 74
Abilene Christian 52 FINAL
Incarnate Word 64
Eastern Wash 85 FINAL
Idaho State 81
Marist 80 FINAL
Quinnipiac 74
Eastern Ill 64 FINAL
Belmont 97
Bradley 52 FINAL
Drake 50
Cal State Fullerton 62 FINAL
UC Irvine 68
CS-Northridge 58 FINAL
Long Beach State 69
UC Riverside 59 FINAL
UC Davis 61
Stanford 62 FINAL
Arizona State 67
Utah 67 FINAL
Washington St 59
Monmouth 68 FINAL
Canisius 56
Wake Forest 85 FINAL
(22) Syracuse 79
Saint Louis 65 FINAL
VA Commonwealth 58
Saint Peters 62 FINAL
Rider 54
UNC-Asheville 51 FINAL
Liberty 59
UNC Greensboro 44 FINAL
(17) Chattanooga 78
Michigan State 69 FINAL
Michigan 49
Arkansas 72 FINAL
Ole Miss 61
Manhattan 51 FINAL
Niagara 57
Massachusetts 63 FINAL
Richmond 67
Virginia 52 FINAL
Miami-Florida 62
Jacksonville St 45 FINAL
Belmont 55
Morgan State 65 FINAL
MD-Eastern Shore 50
Campbell 65 FINAL
Winthrop 52
Furman 65 FINAL
Samford 54
Oregon 64 FINAL
Washington St 66
Indiana 52 FINAL
(23) Rutgers 63
Pepperdine 67 FINAL
Loyola Marymount 68
Auburn 47 FINAL
(18) Texas A&M 57
Morehead St 66 FINAL
Tennessee St 81
George Mason 43 FINAL
Saint Josephs 71
Western Carolina 53 FINAL
East Tenn St 73
Arizona 62 FINAL
UCLA 80
FIU 30 FINAL
Middle Tennessee 79
Texas State 55 FINAL
Appalachian St 61
TX-Arlington 66 FINAL
Georgia Southern 41
SC State 57 FINAL
Bethune-Cookman 56
Delaware State 51 FINAL
Coppin State 80
Portland 58 FINAL
Santa Clara 66
Norfolk State 49 FINAL
Hampton 64
Florida Atlantic 56 FINAL
UAB 59
NC A&T 67 FINAL
NC Central 46
Savannah State 72 FINAL
Florida A&M 51
Virginia Tech 51 FINAL
Pittsburgh 45
Central Arkansas 43 FINAL
Nicholls 53
Houston Baptist 48 FINAL
TX A&M-CC 73
Gardner-Webb 70 FINAL
Radford 56
Georgia 75 FINAL
Missouri 64
Old Dominion 67 FINAL
Marshall 55
Ark-Little Rock 68 FINAL
Louisiana 66
South Alabama 60 FINAL
Arkansas State 70
Georgia State 66 FINAL
ULM 61
Sam Houston St 73 FINAL
Lamar 92
SE Louisiana 75 FINAL
New Orleans 84
Northwestern St 45 FINAL
Stephen F Austin 56
Alabama A&M 58 FINAL
Jackson State 66
Alabama State 68 FINAL
Grambling 62
Southern U 78 FINAL
Prairie View 50
Alcorn State 55 FINAL
Texas Southern 73
Ark-Pine Bluff 0 Postponed
Miss Valley St 0
Wofford 54 FINAL
Mercer 75
Abilene Christian 72 FINAL
Incarnate Word 62
La Salle 60 FINAL
Rhode Island 65
Illinois 71 FINAL
Nebraska 86
TX-San Antonio 60 FINAL
Rice 49
Valparaiso 55 FINAL
Oakland 70
Missouri State 65 FINAL
Indiana State 56
Georgia Tech 64 FINAL
(15) North Carolina 84
Charlotte 72 FINAL
Western Ky 80
Texas-El Paso 69 FINAL
North Texas 61
Wichita State 77 FINAL
Evansville 63
Loyola-Chicago 64 FINAL
Northern Iowa 69
Bradley 70 FINAL
Drake 86
Presbyterian 62 FINAL
High Point 75
Vanderbilt 61 FINAL
(12) Kentucky 67
Colorado 75 FINAL
USC 63
San Francisco 74 FINAL
Pacific 64
Idaho State 58 FINAL
Eastern Washington 62
Weber State 42 FINAL
Idaho 71
Purdue 78 FINAL
Minnesota 82
Cal-Irvine 54 FINAL
Cal State Fullerton 66
Long Beach St 60 FINAL
CS-Northridge 77
Hawaii 60 FINAL
UC Santa Barbara 36
UC Davis 56 FINAL
UC-Riverside 61
Northern Ariz 79 FINAL
Portland State 62
Southern Utah 73 FINAL
Sacramento St 107
Utah 64 FINAL
Washington 75
BYU 65 FINAL
St Marys-CA 64
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: Who is the best center on a Twin Cities sports team?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close