His accuracy is far more evident, and the velocity MarQueis Gray is putting on the football reflects his growing confidence. The squeals of delight are new, too.
The Gophers senior quarterback has always looked the part, but at Friday's public scrimmage, as he zipped pass after pass into the arms of seven different receivers and turned all three of his possessions into scoring drives, he acted like a confident, mature, big-time playmaker. Well, except when he shrieked like a teenage girl over the excitement of tight end Drew Goodger hurdling a tackler to pick up extra yards.
"That's just me getting energy for our guys, letting them know it's OK to celebrate once you make a big play," Gray said with a broad smile after a bravura performance before 250 or so Gophers fans in TCF Bank Stadium. "That's one of the roles I'm taking on this year."
The Gophers don't mind as long as he takes on the role of winning quarterback, too, and after an offseason of stewing about his 3-9 junior year and working to improve, Gray has never looked so primed for the challenge. He completed nine of the 12 passes he attempted Friday, according to statistics compiled by Gopher Illustrated, and threw for 155 yards. Even better, he quarterbacked the first-team offense to two touchdowns -- a 1-yard run by James Gillum and a 7-yard romp by Donnell Kirkwood -- and a field goal (34 yards by Jordan Wettstein) in his three possessions.
Gray frequently seemed to throw the ball reluctantly last year, his first as the Gophers' starter, and barely completed half his passes. He also tucked the ball away and ran more times than the coaching staff intended.
"We all know that he can pull that ball down, and he's a weapon, but if he can stay back there and hang in and throw that ball, that just opens a ton of avenues for him," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "Coach Z [quarterback coach Jim Zebrowski] has really talked to him about, hey, let's really have confidence in that [offensive] line, let's do what we need to do, and then if it doesn't happen, if [the play] breaks down, go ahead and do your thing."
He seems to like it when others do their thing, too. He completed passes of 30 yards to freshman Andre McDonald, 39 yards to A.J. Barker, and 14 yards to Jamel Harbison, and nearly connected with Marcus Jones on a ball Jones couldn't handle. Then Gray opened his third possession with a 10-yard pass to Goodger, who turned upfield to add more yardage. Two steps later, safety Derrick Wells arrived and dove at Goodger's legs. But the sophomore hurdled the would-be tackler and ended up tacking 10 extra yards onto the play.
Gray squealed a high-pitch laugh in delight, raced over to congratulate Goodger, then tapped Wells on the helmet in some good-natured ribbing. Did he know Goodger could jump that high?
"Actually, I didn't. That's why I was so shocked, and I started screaming and going crazy on the field," Gray said. He also expects to hear from his friend Wells. "He'll probably do something in the locker room," Gray said with a laugh.
A few other observations from the Gophers' final public workout before their Aug. 30 season opener at UNLV:
The second-team offense was far less effective, and backup quarterback Max Shortell had a rough day. His first two possessions ended in fumbles, one by Shortell and one by tailback Devon Wright, and his next three resulted in punts. But Shortell remains well ahead of freshmen quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner for the No. 2 spot, Limegrover said. "It's kind of like a race -- if Max slows down and doesn't keep competing, they'll catch him," Limegrover said. "But if he keeps getting better as well, he's gonna keep them at arm's length."
Nelson completed a 66-yard touchdown bomb to Isaac Fruechte, the day's longest pass play, and hit a 12-yard score to McDonald. But he also threw an interception to Briean Boddy and fumbled a snap on fourth-and-1.
David Cobb made the biggest play by a tailback, bursting outside on a 68-yard romp. Cobb, Gillum, Kirkwood and K.J. Maye all had success running the ball.