Gophers QB connects with linemen as well as receivers

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 31, 2012 - 11:25 AM

Philip Nelson is quickly growing into his job, supported by his offensive line.

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Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson picked up second-half rushing yards.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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Matt Limegrover just happened to have a football in his hands. Hey, what are the odds?

The Gophers were finishing a walkthrough at their hotel Friday night, a standard practice to isolate the players the night before a game, and Limegrover, by a happy coincidence if you choose to believe him, had a football handy. So he tossed it to Jon Christenson, the redshirt freshman from Minnetonka who was about 18 hours from getting his first extended playing time at center, with an idle suggestion: Hey, why not snap a couple?

And that's how a couple of freshmen in shorts and sneakers ended up standing next to the pool in a luxury hotel, hiking the ball over and over. And again an hour later, standing in the hallway hiking outside their room.

"It was fun," said quarterback Philip Nelson, who received those several dozen extra snaps from Christenson. "Jon loves feeling confident the night before, and I can see why. He wants to make sure he's perfect. ... He's always finding me, trying to get more snaps, and that's a great thing as a quarterback."

It's not bad for a center, either, considering everything else that has to go through both players' heads as they prepare to trigger the Minnesota offense. Nelson is reading the defense, calling signals and deciding what to do with the ball. Christenson is scoping out proper matchups for the offensive line, making certain each defender is accounted for, and listening to Nelson's call.

"You want [the snap] to be instinctive, so you're not thinking about it. It's repetition, doing the exact same thing every time," Christenson said. "When you're snapping the ball backward and trying to [move] forward, it's kind of an art."

And it's not a bad way to further cement the bond between Nelson, the 19-year-old freshman quarterback, and the teammates protecting him. The Gophers changed quarterbacks in midseason -- twice -- and that can unnerve a group of linemen, particularly one having continuity problems of his own.

But the transition has been almost effortless, Limegrover said, in part because Nelson is practically an honorary lineman. And that can only help the Gophers' cohesiveness as he asserts himself as the new pilot of Minnesota's offense.

"It's great. He's a kid that obviously made an impression on the O-linemen as a group," Limegrover said. "There was already a good connection there. Now he's in that huddle, they all respect him and feel good with him at the helm."

He got to know the linemen right away when he arrived on campus back in January. Not a bad set of friends to have -- skill-position teammates can help a quarterback look good, but linemen can keep him alive. And Nelson seems to have won his blockers over from the start.

In fact, he's more than just the quarterback to some of his linemen. Nelson is a roommate to three starters in front of him -- Josh Campion, Caleb Bak and Mark Lenkiewicz -- so he clearly earned their trust.

"He's the greatest guy. He's a great leader out there already," said Tommy Olson, a sophomore who has played left guard and left tackle this month. "He stepped right into the role. I wasn't surprised by it. You could tell right away, he's got good leadership traits."

He feels the same about them. Take Christenson, his poolside-snapper.

"He's one of the hardest workers I've ever met," Nelson said, and the impromptu practice sessions were a good example. "He wanted to make sure his snaps are perfect, exactly where I want them. He didn't have any bad snaps in the [Purdue] game, so you can tell his hard work is paying off."

Wow, how lucky that Limegrover was somehow carrying a football.

"If you don't get the snap, nothing else is going to happen," the coach said. "If you've got a freshman quarterback, and he's worried about [the ball being] all over the place, snap-wise, he's not going to concentrate on his job. You just can't have that."

  • GOPHERS VS. MICHIGAN 11 a.m. Saturday • TCF Bank Stadium • TV: BTN, 100.3-FM

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