If Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan remains in the concussion protocol Saturday, the team will pick a true freshman – Cole Kramer or Jacob Clark — as the starting quarterback at Northwestern, coach P.J. Fleck said. Here are their stories.
Kramer’s accuracy, running skill fits Gophers’ offense
Cole Kramer has attempted only two passes in his Gophers career so far, neither completed.
That one of them was a desperation heave intercepted to seal the 23-19 loss at Iowa last Saturday is pretty harsh, considering the three-year starter at Eden Prairie didn’t throw his first interception until the second game of his senior year.
“He’s just not used to throwing interceptions,” Eden Prairie coach Mike Grant said. “In our three years, we only lost like three, four games. So we were never behind.”
That wasn’t the case when Kramer stepped in for concussed Tanner Morgan at Kinnick Stadium, facing a four-point deficit, on third-and-21 from Minnesota’s own 9-yard line.
Kramer has played in three games, competing with fellow true freshman Jacob Clark for the backup job. With Morgan’s status for Northwestern on Saturday questionable, Kramer could end up starting, and if he plays at all, he’ll be at the four-game limit to preserve a potential redshirt season.
The Gophers do not make freshmen available to the media, but Grant recalled meeting Kramer as a fifth-grader at a quarterback camp, where Kramer was laser-focused on completing drills and learning while his classmates goofed around with friends.
Grant said he told people even back then: Eden Prairie’s best quarterback was coming.
The former three-star recruit led Eden Prairie to three consecutive state title games, including an undefeated championship season as a junior when he threw for 1,300 yards and 20 touchdowns with no interceptions.
Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said Kramer is a better runner than Clark. Grant said Kramer should excel in the Gophers offense because it’s similar to Eden Prairie’s, which focuses on running the ball but makes big passing plays, too.
Kramer has worked his whole life for this opportunity, Grant said.
“I just don’t think it’s too big for him,” Grant said, adding Kramer welcomes pressure. “… I’m sure Coach Fleck was not hoping to have to put a true freshman in this position, but if they have to, I don’t think there could be a better kid ready to play.”
Clark has thrived under pressure of big Texas high school games
Jacob Clark has been in big games.
Sure, at the high school level. But not just any old preps team. This was Texas high school football.
The first game Clark ever played at Rockwall High School as a junior was in front of 10,000 people against the defending state champions in Texas’ top classification.
“If there was ever a high-pressure moment of high school football, this would be it,” Rockwall coach Rodney Webb said. “… And he went out and threw for 400 yards and five touchdowns.”
So with Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan in the concussion protocol, if Clark ends up starting at Northwestern on Saturday, he’ll be confident for a true freshman.
Clark knows better than most how real “Friday Night Lights” is after transferring in from Overland Park, Kan., where he lived with his mom. He moved in with his father in the Dallas suburb after seeing Rockwall in a high-scoring playoff game and meeting Webb.
What Webb first noticed about Clark is what most do: He looks like the prototypical quarterback. At 6-5, 220 pounds, Clark is “very physically impressive,” according to Webb, who knew even after one spring ball practice that Clark had “the ‘It’ factor.”
Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said Clark’s strength is his stature. He’s taller than fellow true freshman backup Cole Kramer, who is 6-1, 195 pounds, and thus can see in the pocket a little bit better.
Clark has played in only one game this season, leading a scoring drive late in the Maryland blowout on Oct. 26. But he did complete one 39-yard pass in that showing. Webb said Clark has a “big arm” but is also a good decisionmaker, who excelled in Rockwall’s college-like system.
The former four-star recruit threw for 6,232 yards and 60 touchdowns in 23 varsity games.
Webb recently had dinner with Clark after attending the Penn State victory on Nov. 9 and said Clark “loves” Minnesota, has made a lot of friends and found great teachers. One is Morgan, who has become a real mentor. The other is Ciarrocca, whom Clark thinks “hung the moon,” per Webb.
“He’s been very happy,” Webb said.