MarQueis Gray possesses a peculiar quality that, in the view of some teammates, makes him the perfect quarterback to lead the Gophers.
"I'd say he has a very short-term memory,'' wide receiver Da'Jon McKnight said. "He never gets down. He's always got a smile on his face -- something bad happens, he's smiling.''
A short-term memory is something all the Gophers could use. Gray leads a team that is 1-5 at the season's midpoint, has lost its first two Big Ten games by a combined margin of 103-17 and faces Nebraska on Saturday. The Cornhuskers are followed, in succession, by Iowa, Michigan State and Wisconsin, a quartet that has a combined 20-4 record.
Gray appears unfazed, or at least not victimized by his memories, saying: "I feel like if we do what we're supposed to do, have less turnovers and have some fun, anything's possible.''
Gray can hardly be held accountable for the Gophers' struggles, since he missed key parts of the first two games, losses to USC and New Mexico State, with severe cramping that rushed true freshman Max Shortell into action. Then Gray suffered torn ligaments in his left toe late in the lone victory over Miami (Ohio), missed the Big Ten opener at Michigan and didn't start last Saturday at Purdue.
Gray is back as the No. 1 quarterback, but his performance is difficult to grade, a mixture of good and bad, often within the same game. He's the Gophers' leading rusher, including 171 yards against Miami, a school record for quarterbacks . But his passing can politely be described as inconsistent, and his inability to provide the Gophers with a deep passing game has allowed opposing defenses to focus on stopping the run.
"It's been more of a learning process,'' Gray said. "It's not where I want it to be, but we have to look forward to the second part of the season.''
Gray has completed only 48.5 percent of his passes (47 of 97) and has more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three). But offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said there is a lot more to those statistics than meets the eye.
"One of the tough things about being a quarterback, of course, is that a lot of it is going to be laid at your feet,'' Limegrover said. "But sometimes it's not all his fault. What we've done the last couple weeks is, instead of meeting as individual [offensive position] groups, we've met as a whole offense and said, 'Ok, here's a time where he didn't make a real good read or have a real good throw. But here's another time when the receiver, where were you supposed to be? And here's another time when he couldn't step into his throw because he had a defensive lineman in his face.' So, there's a lot of pieces to that puzzle.''
One thing that stands out about Gray, Limegrover said, is that he's steadily emerged as a leader, and teammates have taken note.
"He's gone through some trials and tribulations,'' senior running back Duane Bennett said. "But at the same time, he's one of those players who's going to fight through it.''
Gray last played quarterback on a regular basis as a high school junior in 2007, suffering a broken arm as a senior. He sat out 2008 with the Gophers because of academic problems and played mostly at wide receiver the past two years.
Limegrover described Gray as "a little shell-shocked'' for the opening game at USC because "everything was so new.'' But Gray persevered, and was showing improvement until injuring his toe against Miami.
"There have been things that set his progress back, because when you don't play, it's hard to get better,'' Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. "So I think these next six games are real critical.''
Gray said he believes the bye week has put him in a position to respond to the challenge. His toe improved with treatment and more rest than normal, and he spent a lot of time after practice working with receivers on routes and timing.
"The bye week gave me a lot of confidence to push off [his injured left foot] and cut,'' he said. "I feel a lot better, and a lot more comfortable.''
That confidence appears to be rubbing off on teammates who can clearly use an infusion of it.
"He's a good leader,'' McKnight said. "When he's got a smile on his face, he lets everyone know it's going to be fine. He's not the kind to put his head down.''
In short, he's showing teammates the value of a short-term memory.