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

Buffalo 12/28/14 12:00 PM
New England
Cleveland 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Baltimore
Dallas 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Washington
Indianapolis 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Tennessee
Jacksonville 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Houston
San Diego 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Kansas City
NY Jets 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Miami
Chicago 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Minnesota
Philadelphia 12/28/14 12:00 PM
NY Giants
New Orleans 12/28/14 12:00 PM
Tampa Bay
Carolina 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Atlanta
Detroit 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Green Bay
Oakland 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Denver
Arizona 12/28/14 3:25 PM
San Francisco
St. Louis 12/28/14 3:25 PM
Seattle
Cincinnati 12/28/14 7:30 PM
Pittsburgh
Washington 102 FINAL
New York 91
Oklahoma City 114 FINAL
San Antonio 106
Cleveland 91 FINAL
Miami 101
LA Lakers 93 FINAL
Chicago 113
Golden State 82 4th Qtr 1:39
LA Clippers 97
DePaul 69 FINAL
Loyola Marymount 72
Ohio 58 FINAL
Nebraska 71
Colorado 66 FINAL
Hawaii 69
George Washington 60 FINAL
Wichita State 54
Central Mich 48 FINAL
Western Ky 49
Fresno State 6 FINAL
Rice 30
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 2:30 PM
So Carolina
Boston College 12/27/14 3:30 PM
Penn State
(25) Nebraska 12/27/14 7:00 PM
(24) USC
Texas A&M 12/29/14 1:00 PM
West Virginia
Oklahoma 12/29/14 4:30 PM
(18) Clemson
Arkansas 12/29/14 8:00 PM
Texas
Notre Dame 12/30/14 2:00 PM
(22) LSU
(13) Georgia 12/30/14 5:45 PM
(20) Louisville
Maryland 12/30/14 9:00 PM
Stanford
(9) Ole Miss 12/31/14 11:30 AM
(6) TCU
(21) Boise State 12/31/14 3:00 PM
(12) Arizona
(8) Miss State 12/31/14 7:00 PM
(10) Georgia Tech
(19) Auburn 1/1/15 11:00 AM
(17) Wisconsin
(7) Michigan State 1/1/15 11:30 AM
(4) Baylor
(16) Missouri 1/1/15 12:00 PM
Minnesota
(2) Florida State 1/1/15 4:00 PM
(3) Oregon
(5) Ohio State 1/1/15 7:30 PM
(1) Alabama
Connect with twitterConnect with facebookConnect with Google+Connect with PinterestConnect with PinterestConnect with RssfeedConnect with email newsletters

ADVERTISEMENT

<
Gophers Football Time W L Score
2014 season     
Aug 28 - vs. E. Illinois 6 pmX42-20
Sep 6 - vs. M. Tennessee St. 2:30 pmX35-24
Sep 13 - at TCU 3 pmX30-7
Sep 20 - vs. San Jose St. 3 p.m.X24-7
Sep 27 - at Michigan 2:30 pmX30-14
Oct 11 - vs. Northwestern 11 amX24-17
Oct 18 - vs. Purdue 11 amX39-38
Oct 25 - at Illinois 11 amX28-24
Nov 8 - vs. Iowa 11 amX51-14
Nov 15 - vs. Ohio State 11 amX31-24
Nov 22 - at Nebraska 11 amX28-24
Nov 29 - at Wisconsin 2:30 pmX34-24
Jan 1 - vs. Missouri noon

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

ADVERTISEMENT

question of the day

Poll: What's your favorite Gophers football uniform colors?

Weekly Question

ADVERTISEMENT

 
Close