Souhan: Nelson's quarterbacking tools didn't merit a long shelf life

  • Article by: JIM SOUHAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 28, 2012 - 8:41 AM

Jerry Kill's reputation as a recruiter grew exponentially on Saturday, as Philip Nelson, the pride of Mankato West, made like Robert Griffin III. Kill's reputation as a decision-maker simultaneously took a hit.

If Nelson was capable of throwing for 246 yards and three touchdowns in his first half at TCF Bank Stadium, how could Kill have waited six games to remove his redshirt? Are the Gophers working under some secret sanctions that keep the head coach from watching practice?

Kill's first starting quarterback this season, MarQueis Gray, had trouble throwing the ball forward. His second starting quarterback this season, Max Shortell, had trouble running forward, or throwing the ball outside the hash marks.

How could a veteran football coach watch these three players practice, then tell Nelson to run the scout team?

"It's one of those things where you just don't know what's going to happen,'' Kill said. "If I was out there, I'd be asking the same question.''

If you were intent on saving Nelson's four years of eligibility for the future, then removing his redshirt after six games of this season in an attempt to qualify for a low-tier bowl game is an act of desperation, even if it turned out well Saturday.

If you were keeping Nelson on the bench as a result of talent evaluation, then we have to wonder if Kill spends practice time holding bake sales to help him buy his way out of games against North Carolina.

Saturday, Nelson threw with a downfield precision that hasn't been seen at The Bank since before Jedd Fisch screwed up Adam Weber's throwing motion. His totals on the day: 15-for-22 for 246 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions.

Nelson's first touchdown pass was important, but didn't prove much. Derrick Engel's inside fake left him with a clear route to the end zone in the first quarter. Nelson hit him in stride.

Nelson's second touchdown pass required the kind of accuracy and touch you don't see often in the Big Ten.

Early in the second quarter, A.J. Barker ran open down the right sideline. A Purdue defender began to close on him, leaving him just a sliver of open turf. Nelson lofted a soft pass that hit Barker in stride, just before the defender arrived, and Barker dived into the end zone, and a team that didn't even bother to cover a receiver on a goal-line play in the first quarter was up 21-7. "He's got as quick a release as I've seen," Barker said.

Another long touchdown pass to Barker made it 28-7 with 10:34 left in the second quarter and that rarest of Minnesota events -- a winning Gophers football blowout against a Big Ten opponent -- was underway.

Thanks to a guy who spent six weeks holding a helmet. "I never really changed my mindset,'' Nelson said. "I always prepared like I was going to play, just to make sure that my opportunity wouldn't embarrass me."

After the 63-yard score to Barker, Nelson was 11-for-12 for 226 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions, and on his way to the best passing performance by a Gophers team since Oct. 31, 2009, against Michigan State.

That night Weber, playing without injured receiver Eric Decker, threw for 416 yards and five touchdowns in a 42-34 victory, in what felt like a release of frustration on Weber's part.

Nelson's performance was more promising, if not as prolific. In his first game in the lineup at TCF Bank Stadium, he established that he can pass with accuracy, run with authority and run an offense that requires much of the quarterback.

Gophers fans should enjoy this: Michigan is coming to town next week, bringing Denard Robinson, once considered a Heisman Trophy candidate, and the Gophers may have the better quarterback.

Nelson has that "it" quality you want in a quarterback: Talent augmented by a feel for the game.

"I'm excited for the future,'' Kill said. "I can't go back and change anything."

Nelson at quarterback, with Gray at receiver, gives the Gophers their best possible lineup.

That's easy to say today. I wonder why it wasn't easy to say two months ago.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m. to noon and weekdays at 2 p.m. on 1500-AM. His Twitter name is SouhanStrib. • jsouhan@startribune.com

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